"Water Lilies" is about two teenage best friends and their very important discovery: Sex. But on this occasion, it's not an "OMG" event. The reaction is a lot more like, "Hmm, that's weird: Boys like me." Or: "I like girls." The writer and director, Céline Sciamma, appears to be going for some kind of lightly artistic social critique. She sets her tiny, quiet dramedy in synchronized swimmer-infested waters, where a girl must do everything precisely as her teammates do. It's the only sport where winning depends on painstaking conformity.
Sciamma, making her first movie, doesn't do enough with the sex or the sport. But "Water Lilies" has its moments, taking taciturn Marie (Pauline Acquart) and her lumbering buddy, Anne (Louise Blachère), on separate trips through humiliation and relative enlightenment in the Paris suburbs. Marie is obsessed with Floriane (Adèle Haenel), the captain of the synchronized swim team. Floriane doesn't exactly stop her. She has Marie over to her house. They talk (sort of) and lie around in that hilarious but exasperating way kids do when there's attraction in the air. They just sit there nervously expectant, as though consummation means the lust simply jumps from your body to the one next to you.
Eventually, they make things happen, but apparently Floriane takes all comers, flirting with Marie one minute and some boy from the water polo team the next. (Yes, she's that girl: pretty, conceited, and greedy.) This is the same guy whom Anne likes. Sciamma, who was in her mid-20s when she made the film, works out most of the emotional complications at parties, in pools, and beds. And something about the movie feels rightly scary - the keyboards on the soundtrack evoke science-fiction and horror movies from the first half of the 1980s.
"Water Lilies" is a distant thematic and artistic cousin of Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" and Lucrecia Martel's "The Holy Girl," two movies that turned hormonal eruptions into tragic phantasmagorias. Sciamma's going for less - or, if her clinical approach means she's a disciple of the French provocateuse Catherine Breillat, for more. Either way, the movie, in its quest to explore the inner lives of these girls, doesn't go far enough in. Marie commits the occasional transgression, helping herself to some of Floriane's trash in one promising moment. And Anne - wonderful, graceless Anne - perceives her fleshy body as both an enticement and an ob ject of repulsion. Blachère, with her lunar, cartoon face (Georges Méliès could have landed a spaceship in her eye), comic timing, and sleepy charisma, deserves a serious movie career. This film doesn't use her enough.
Rather than trace the movie's psychological fractures or just give us a big fat comedy, Sciamma strikes poses - biblical ones. Anne stands naked like she's nailed to an invisible cross; Marie slumps into the Pietà. And the movie keeps going, sending Marie and Floriane to a nightclub whose lighting is hellish and whose techno sounds like an ambulance siren. Emergency, indeed: heartbreak on the dance floor. Call 9-1-1. Or don't. Neither the temptation nor the suffering feels that urgent. Sciamma is a smart, instinctive director, but her filmmaking needs to loosen up. Too much of this movie is content to float when it ought to swim.