Waterdance, the: Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg’s Tale of Disabled Men, Starring Wesley Snipes

Hollywood has made some excellent movies about paraplegics and physically disabled individuals. You may recall The Best Years of Our Lives (1947), Marlon Brando’s stunning debut in The Men (1950), and Coming Home (1978).

Yet there is something new in the independent film, The Waterdance, co-directed by Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg.

I am hesitant to use the word uplifting, because of its “TV Movie of the Week” connotation, though the movie is definitely life-affirming. But perhaps what is most striking about The Waterdance is its meticulous attention to detail and its tight focus–the story of three ordinary guys–not war heroes or vets–who happen to be in wheel chairs.

The film’s extraordinary authenticity may stem from the fact that Jimenez based the script on his own experience in the wheelchair.

The Waterdance centers on three characters who could not be more different. Joel (Eric Stoltz) is a young novelist with a broken neck, Bloss (William Forsythe) a racist biker, and Ray (Wesley Snipes) a streetwise black man. “Every man got to find his place,” says Ray and, indeed, the movie chronicles how the three come to terms with themselves and redefine their masculinity. The camaraderie that emerges among them is just one of the movie’s many qualities; its uniformly great cast is another.

The movie’s first, and most arresting, image, is a lengthy close-up of Joel’s head immobilized in a traction device called a halo. It sets the tone and perspective of the whole film; everything is shown from Joel’s point of view. In its honesty and explicitness, the sex scene between Joel and his girlfriend (who is married to another man) achieves a new level of realism in American movies.

Boasting a wicked, down-to-earth, humor, and refusing to judge its characters, The Waterdance is a decidedly unsentimental movie, at once funny and sad.