The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake; or perhaps in the case of Mermaid’s Song, the dust settles differently upon each poor family’s farm. Naturally, you can see that the saying isn’t quite as catchy as the one from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, nor does it ever seem to want to. Mermaid’s Song is a much different tune, and, while similar to the Hans Christian Andersen story in some ways, it does its best to shove it apart from the crowd in some fairly unique ways. Unfortunately, for every bit of inspired storytelling the film has up its sleeve, it’s bogged down by some clunky acting and a warring thematic tones that don’t mesh.
Set during the height of the Dust Bowl in Depression Era Oklahoma, Mermaid’s Song follows a family who runs an in-house cabaret act for locals headed by George (Brendan Taylor), the family patriarch, and Serena (Natasha Quirke), the matriarch and talented main act of the show. The show hits a lull after Serena’s death, as her four daughters, who are now headlining the show, no longer put on a rousing performance. When a parasitic businessman, Randall (Iwan Rheon), offers George a financial deal to save the show in return for sexualizing his daughters for profit, including the youngest, non-performing child, Charlotte (Katelyn Mager), George gives in. Though, when Charlotte begins performing, her sirenic voice gives way to a revelation of her true nature that not only Randall and his men, but her own father, becomes fearful of.
The Little Mermaid this is not. This is a generally bleak picture of the plains during the Great Depression, and much of the film revolves around the issues of that time and place rather than that of any supernatural occurrences. While the film is called Mermaid’s Song, only a small portion of the film is dedicated to Charlotte’s nature as a mermaid. When the film does hit the ground with this, it almost feels out of place since much of the film hadn’t really been leading up to it. Had the film not held its title, I could’ve easily assumed the film was a drama film without any horror elements. This makes it a very slow burn, but, when the horror hits, it isn’t subtle. The climactic scene of the film, so out there in its nature, feels almost disingenuous to the pace that the film set up in its first 80 minutes.
Arguably the most notable actor in the film is Game of Thrones’s (and Misfits’s, for those who remember) Iwan Rheon. He gives the best performance in the film, despite in a supporting role, if only because it’s a deliciously hammy villain role that gives Rheon a bunch of wiggle room to be as terrifyingly relatable, or as egregiously over-the-top, as he wants. Rheon’s balance of this makes his performance a joy to watch. Katelyn Mager is also quite good as Charlotte, the sickly sweet runt of the litter with a dark secret. Mager has a real chemistry with every person in the film, despite the quality of the opposing performance. Her presence is felt and her character’s “special” nature is justified from it.
Most other performances in the film feel pretty clunky and stilted. The screenplay, penned by Bob Woolsey and Meghan Hotz, leaves a bit to be desired in lingual eloquence, so without a strong cast, the dialogue of the film often comes across quite forced and inorganic, making many of the more dramatic scenes fall flat in terms of emotional resonance. The tonal qualities of the film also don’t particularly mesh well with each other. The dramatic scenes hold no real tension in flowing into the horror scenes, which feel generally out of nowhere without any build-up. They are decent genre scenes by themselves most of the time, but the transitions between them make the film feel like much of what the film was going for was based in the idea of what they wanted to achieve, not in the execution of making it real. For a super low-budget film, much of it is attractively shot, echoing a much less exceptional version of Mudbound (even though Mermaid’s Song was shot in 2015, before Mudbound). The visual effects when we get to the mermaid lore and some of the more violent elements of the film can be a bit clunky sometimes which could be attributed to high ambition.
Despite the sometimes glaring issues with the film, there’s some campy enjoyment to be found in Mermaid’s Song, if you’re looking for something with a little more talk and a little less bite. It’s not really that scary at any point, nor is it thematically compelling, but it’s a unique take on an old fairy tale that I honestly wish could’ve seen a more refined approach to it. A film like this is always going to be campy in some regards, but there’s this unspoken potential in Mermaid’s Song, much like in its main character, that doesn’t get to see its full realization by the story’s end.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.