Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
Vancouver made Charlotte’s Song is an exceedingly provocative film that titillates the viewer with a haunting atmosphere, lavish dress, and beautiful music while completely nullifying all this through its convoluted script, crime TV-like special effects, and lack of direction. Set in the 30s Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Charlotte’s Song tells the story of a mermaid coming of age. Her mother, a mermaid singer with the power to control audiences with her voice, dies unexpectedly, leaving a grieving degenerate father and five sisters to fend for themselves. When they can’t make ends meet, they enlist the help of a crime boss, Randall, portrayed by Game of Thrones‘s Iwan Rheon, to help pay off their debt. Randall makes some startling changes to the family business, transforming the girls first into sex objects and then into sex toys. When this happens, it’s up to Charlotte (Katelyn Mager) to find her inner mermaid and use her voice to save her family.
This, at least, is what seems to be on the surface of Charlotte’s Song. But since the film is so completely nonsensical and lacking in logical development, it is difficult to exactly pin down the plot points or motivations of the characters. In particular, Charlotte’s father George (Brendan Taylor) and Randall are entirely contrived for the purposes of fledging out Charlotte’s story. Their motivations and actions are questionable throughout, with George willing to denigrate his daughters and even kill one of them while hypocritically spouting that it is all for the good of the family. He is later killed by one of his own daughters.
The special effects, while somewhat exciting, is some of the worst seen in film in years. It looks as if it belongs on the Identity channel. There are midi-like sound effects while characters have unrealistic auras, tracers, and light around them. Things jump and whoosh in a highly over-stylish manner. Sharp electronic noises are heard as tracers appear behind fast moving characters and mysterious objects. It could have been made on an iMac. There are some artistic landscape shots which recall Malick’s Days of Heaven. The placid fiddle song too complements this reference. Many dream-like sequences are used, but they are actual visions which the viewer is expected to accept as part of the character’s experiences. All this is to say that the overzealous use of special effects go far beyond fantasy. Every frame is full of superfluous and sensational activity, and while fantasy is expressed through sensation, there is not much depth in the story to validate it.
And yet the film does have strongly resonant features. The music is especially enduring, and the film’s atmosphere is certainly unique. With all the poor storytelling, acting (besides the wonderful newcomer Katelyn Mager in the eponymous role), and special effects, Charlotte’s Song first appears to be a major failure. But the one area where the film succeeds is in creating a unique world. It uses the advent of filmmaking to bring to life a world unknown and to allow the viewer, for 88 minutes, to enter this world. For this reason, it easily qualifies for the adage “it’s so bad it’s good”. But if a bad film is memorable, does this really make it good?
Charlotte’s Song easily qualifies for the adage “it’s so bad it’s good”. But if a bad film is memorable, does this really make it good?