For as long as New York City has been the de facto epicenter of American independent film, there have been scenes where a child that’s wise beyond their years strikes up a bond with a raggedy man on the street who knows a thing or two about life. It’s a quintessential stock scene that highlights everything about New York that filmmakers find so inspiring — the eat-or-be-eaten lifestyle forces everyone to mature and turn into philosophers, but the urban density simultaneously forces people to interact and see each other as humans.
It’s also a surefire sign that you’re watching a New York Movie, a category that only encompasses a small percentage of films that are set in New York. The iconography of directors like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese has permeated culture so deeply that it’s become a rite of passage for certain filmmakers to recreate the cinematic version of the city that they grew up watching. Intellectual debates about romantic neuroses held over strolls through the Upper West Side probably don’t happen nearly as often as we’re lead to believe, but they’ve become a cinematic genre in and of themselves.
The latest addition to the genre of unapologetically indie, New York-set anthologies is “What Doesn’t Float.” Luca Balser’s directorial debut (produced by Pauline Chalamet) tells the interconnected stories of a diverse range of New Yorkers who all feel pushed to their breaking point by circumstances beyond their control. The hyper-brief stories range from a young woman who listens to her gut and withdraws consent after getting on a motorcycle with an endearing bad boy to a freelance car washer who can no longer lift his own bucket and a dock worker who resists confronting his declining abilities. When taken as a short story collection with a fixation on water, there’s a lot to enjoy. But its influences are so obvious that it’s hardly surprising when, yes, a mature kid inevitably befriends a wise old man on the street.
Despite the film’s occasionally painful reliance on familiar indie film tropes, “What Doesn’t Float” is executed at a higher level than most of its microbudget competition. Balser and his crew avoid the shaky, unvarnished cinematography that you’d expect from such a scrappy film in favor of a more elegant look that gives his characters’ struggles the cinematic flair they deserve. And while anthology films are often dragged down by choppy, episodic screenplays, Shauna Fitzgerald’s script is structured like a smooth “Mr. Show” episode, with side characters from each vignette offering seamless transitions into the next one. The skillful attention paid to small details makes it easy to see why “What Doesn’t Float” is enjoying a theatrical release while so many comparable films are undoubtedly languishing away at fourth-tier festivals.
Still, no amount of charmingly composed golden hour shots can fully atone for the cringe factor of a perv masturbating in his car at the beach while an orchestral score plays. Or a single tear rolling down the face of a Blue Collar Tough Guy as he falls asleep. The stylistic flourishes that make a film recognizable as “indie” (regardless of its financial structure or affiliation with a studio) are like salt for a young director — a small touch can add plenty of flavor, too much ruins the taste, and a large enough dose can be downright lethal. “What Doesn’t Float” never gets anywhere near the worst end of the spectrum, but Balser and Fitzgerald certainly over-season on multiple occasions.
But no matter how much the industry changes, there’s still a contingency of indie film kids who have devoted our lives to thinking this stuff is cool. And at times, “What Doesn’t Float” is very cool. Clocking in at a tight 70 minutes — a delightful run time that should be as socially acceptable as the three-hour epic — the film manages to cram in enough amusement to justify its existence without overstaying its welcome. The fact that it never reinvents the wheel might be an explanation for why this genre continues to flourish despite its familiarity: human life is fucking fascinating, and documenting slices of it on film remains a miracle worth pursuing.
Circle Collective will release “What Doesn’t Float” in select theaters on Friday, September 22.