This article was written by Arieon Whittsey
What Doesn’t Float, directed by Luca Balser from a screenplay by Shauna Fitzgerald, is a collection of scenes set in New York. Each scene begins tinged with mundane magic only to succumb to the random interruptions of life.
The film opens with a man on a paddle board, retrieving glass bottles from sun-tinged waters. In another frame, an older woman picks up discarded aluminum cans. The two meet seconds later when the same man walks past her cart full of cans on the sidewalk, accidentally knocking them over. The woman shoos him away but he doesn’t get to leave before another, younger woman walks up and begins to question him about helping clean up the cans. Eventually the younger woman says to him, “Classic man, leaving women to clean up the mess. Check your privilege bro.” They play tug-o-war with the bag of cans. With a thump that sounds fatal, the woman falls down and hits the concrete after losing her grip of the bag.
Instead of a fatal silence, or the sirens of a (likely necessary) ambulance, we hear the calm and collected voice of the woman as she pulls her phone out casually with one hand (the other covered in blood from her head). She begins to record herself, the man and the older woman, and narrates the event with the woman recording herself and talking to her phone in an attempt to expose the man for “assaulting” her. While this feels like an attempt at irony, and even commentary on modern culture, it falls flat. The scene borders on bizarre, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film, an anthology of days that are interrupted by the unexpected, whether that’s the characters themselves or the world around them.
The second scene shows promise, with beautiful, sun-tinged cinematography focused on a group of teenage girls throwing water balloons at each other on a dock with the Statue of Liberty appearing small and unimportant in the background. Their laughter blends harmoniously with the swelling orchestra that plays in the background. However, the harmony within the scene devolves as one of the girls, Alex (Pauline Chalamet), goes off for a motorcycle ride with her presumed love interest, Jason (Keith Poulson). Alex wraps her arms around Jason, looking uninterested as the gold of the sun lights the plain-looking part of town that they ride through and the music twinkles suggesting a magic that never comes to fruition. Alex tries to rest her head on his shoulder as they ride but there seems to be a lack of comfort, it feels inauthentic, almost dry.
While Alex suggests a trip to the beach, Jason takes her to his “spot” that is just the top of some old freights where liquor and condoms lay in a small, sad pile on top of the metal. Alex refuses to go up on the freight. They venture back to the beach but Jason, seemingly feeling rejected, begins to ride the motorcycle fast toward the end of the dock, only to stop at the edge, cackling while the girl questions his sanity. When he leaves, Alex passes a fish on the concrete that is thrown back into the water. She stares at the fish as it joins others and it feels as though she knows there will be other boys too.
The final scene is noteworthy, as it is the longest in the film. It depicts a boatsman, Mike (Joel Nagle), who is unable to continue tying knots and consequently loses his job. Mike’s story is a tense depiction of a person reaching their tipping point. The scene is stretched out, aligning with the restlessness that Mike experiences. Dark and occasionally bordering on fright, it’s accompanied by glimpses of serene scenery when Mike dreams of being out on the water only to wake up fearfully to find himself “sleep walking.” As Mike becomes increasingly unhinged and sleep-deprived, the scene remains engaging and dynamic. Furthermore, the seamless transitions between different locations and between dreams and reality add to its overall dynamism.
What Doesn’t Float presents an array of scenes that go by quickly and sometimes jarringly, including a disturbing scene where a man eats his friend’s fish and chokes to death. While not all feel meaningful or cohesive within their individual stories, there is an effort to show people at their worst, regardless of the character.
For example, there’s a woman breaking down over what I assume is a recent abortion and her search for a sign that she made the right decision. Another features a boatsman who can no longer do his job but dreams about being out in the water to the point of being restless. Two boys laugh gleefully after smoking marijuana, only for one of them to uncomfortably pleasure himself while watching a woman on the beach. A man talks to a little girl about God, but he becomes angry at a driver who almost hits her, leading him to pull the driver out of the car and punch him in front of the little girl. It all resembles a scene from the video game Grand Theft Auto. The moments of almost-magic when the repetition of life is broken up helps balance out the regular turmoil faced by these characters.
While there are a few scenes that did not resonate as much as others, there is notable talent that make their characters and the world around them feel real and raw, such as Cindy De La Cruz as Em and Joel Nagel as Mike, among others. They make these characters feel fully embodied, and their stories are truly unique and interesting.
What Doesn’t Float prompts viewers to look beyond conventional portrayals of New York and explore the diverse lives of individuals and the interruptions that push them to the edge. It features an evocative, purposeful soundtrack that enhances the individual stories. The film showcases notable talent and evokes various emotions, whether they are heart-wrenching, disturbing, or sorrowful. It invites us to take a look at the many ways we find to keep living even as we near our breaking points.
You can watch What Doesn’t Float now on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.