If Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure was the gritty, perhaps more faithful reinterpretation of the classic children’s story The Little Mermaid, complete with its own share of singing torsos and fish vaginas, then The Mermaid’s Song is The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, except Ariel dies within the first ten minutes, and her daughter is a pedophile revenger. In the voice of Bill Hader’s Stefon from Saturday Night Live, Mermaid’s Song has everything: a strange old woman called “Grandma” who is unrelated to the family and has tentacles hidden under her dress; a magical song that keeps people from committing murder; a father prostituting five of his daughters all of whom look the same age as him; and Iwan Rheon’s Ramsay Bolton demeanor with an American accent and no testicle-mutilation. New York’s hottest club is “the deterioration of an impoverished family with a fantasy twist set in the 1930s Dust Bowl.”
Against a backdrop of barren, yellowing fields, blue skies and stalks of wheat, is the tale of a young mermaid, bullied and unwelcomed by her unreasonably angry family years after the death of her mother, trying to survive in a world that doesn’t accept her, far and away from a world she doesn’t know. Caught in the middle of this tug-of-war of wanting is little Charlotte (Katelyn Mager), youngest daughter of Serena and George (Natasha Ann Quirke and Brendan Taylor, respectively), the former of whom is our aforementioned Ariel who dies by suicide in the prologue, and the latter of whom is a bizarrely, almost hilariously scummy father figure who is unredeemable in any conceivable way throughout the duration of the film. Before her death, Serena would perform in a song-and-dance act alongside her and George’s five other daughters, while Charlotte would scamper about admiring them and their beauty all the while. After Serena’s death, the family is in decline. Money is scarce, good attitudes are scarcer, and there’s nobody around for miles to help them – except for the convenient bad guy with a double-edged sword. You see, the notorious Randall (an admirably committed Iwan Rheon) and his gang of gang-bangers comes along one day and offers the family an ultimatum; he’ll invest in the family’s business, if the family agrees to make a few changes to their act while they work to pay off their debt. These changes include turning the innocent song-and-dance into a strip-tease, the occasional, here-and-there prostitution; a small price to pay for a struggling father trying to make ends meet, is it not?
Through an unsavory sequence of events, Charlotte’s true nautical nature comes to light, and it suddenly offers the family a new means to an end; a new way to spice up the act. In the meantime, Charlotte’s family continues to mistreat her, from her older siblings who force her to clean up spilled blood from off the floor after Charlotte’s been attacked and traumatized because it’s “her fault,” to her father who neglects her until it suits him and threatens to beat her and her sisters. There’s an old woman dressed in all black like she’s from Insidious: Chapter 2 skulking about the house, whose supposed to be acting as the Ursula antagonist but is far kinder to Charlotte than any of her own family; there’s a dude named Tim who hangs around from time to time who was in love with Serena, is an old friend of George’s and who Charlotte (who can’t be more than eleven or twelve) is inexplicably smitten with, and there’s the unshakable question of how it came to be that Charlotte was the only one out of six siblings to inherent the mermaid gene. Must be recessive.
Despite its light gore, commendable practical SFX, enchanting set pieces and production design, The Mermaid’s Song feels restrained yet somehow all over the place; an unnecessarily mean-spirited fantasy that offers little hope for its young protagonist even when its supposed to feel like she’s won. There are earth-shattering actions that yield no noticeable consequences, characters that treat each other in ways which feel unmotivated, and a villain who flits to and fro the narrative without ever seeming to make much of a dent in it. There’s also the fact that the entire film feels like a stage production because it only takes place within the family’s house, never allowing the characters to roam any farther than just outside it. Perhaps it’s to illustrate the fact that Charlotte herself is trapped there, but it all ends up feeling so confined, like the bottle episode of a television show. The best part of the movie? Easily the bad dad, who is quite literally such an awful human being offered up with little to no ability for redemption that it’s actually kind of delightful. It’s hard to remember the last time a character in a movie was so unfettered in their own terribleness, and it provides a truly sumptuous amount of cringe despite being unclear just what made him so terrible in the first place.
There is still something to be said for these darkly daring redos of the technicolor tales that highlighted and enhanced the formative years of nineties babies, a breath of fresh air in comparison to the soulless, CGI-encumbered live-action reboots which seem like an unending, unstoppable nightmare. Though The Mermaid’s Tale can probably be considered more an adaptation of the original source material and much less of an acquaintanceship with the beloved cartoon property, it’s still refreshing, similarly to The Lure, to see known stories warped and expanded upon so far from what is familiar about them if we’re going to be seeing them again at all. In the end, while The Mermaid’s Song feels like a scattershot collage of supernatural spectacle, lumbering plot, and unrelenting viciousness, it must be lauded for its unique take on a familiar fantasy, even if it doesn’t quite hit its mark.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs