You’d expect a story of three recently paralyzed men to put the squeeze on your heartstrings. So it comes as a relief to discover that The Waterdance, a fitfully engaging anecdotal drama starring Eric Stoltz, William Forsythe, and Wesley Snipes as paraplegics who struggle to regain touch with some sort of life, is as dry-eyed as a movie can be. The opening sequence is a revelation: Joel (Stoltz), a handsome young fiction writer who has broken his neck — and fractured his spinal cord — during a hiking trip, is wheeled through a rehabilitation clinic in Los Angeles, and for about 15 minutes the camera practically welds itself to his face, duplicating the silent horror of his fixed vantage. The counterpoint between that eerie, motionless view and Joel’s wisecracking temperament-up till now, he has completely repressed his sorrow — is devastating.
Written and codirected by Neal Jimenez, who scripted River’s Edge and became paralyzed himself following an accident in 1984, The Waterdance is an honest, almost confessional attempt to deal with the overwhelming change in identity — the shift in how the world sees you, and in how you see the world — that results from being in a wheelchair. The movie is stirringly candid on such matters as the sex lives of paraplegics. Joel is in the midst of a serious love affair with a married woman (Helen Hunt), and when they go to a motel to make love for the first time after his accident, the scene is tender and wounding.
The Waterdance is scrupulous about avoiding cheap sentiment. After a while, though, you may start to feel it’s avoiding well-earned sentiment as well. Aside from the physical details of rehabilitation, the characters remain sketchy and ”representative”; their personalities are never fully fleshed out. (I was reminded, by contrast, of 1985’s Mask, which also starred Stoltz, and which gave you a far greater sense of its scarred hero as an individual.) It helps to have a cast as good as this one. Stoltz, his chiseled features concealed behind a scraggly goatee, conjures up a rueful, sardonic anger, and Forsythe, as the loutish biker who becomes Joel’s buddy, uses his doughy body and desolate pirate’s stare to suggest a man who finds his already petty existence made insupportably small. B-