The first-time feature director from small town Ontario dives into the deep end with a coming-of-age story focused on a young woman with body image angst and her quest to stay under the surface without drowning
By Katherine Monk
From the time she was seven years old, Lindsay Mackay told her parents she wanted to be a doctor. A self-confessed “science and math nerd,” she excelled at solving equations and found comfort in the predictability of the ‘right answer’ being found in the back pages of an appendix.
But something strange happened in Grade 11 – and though it didn’t directly involve a new bra size, a dramatic deflowering or mutant superhero ability – it did recalibrate her inner sense of destiny.
“I had this great English teacher who taught me to believe in my own voice,” says Mackay, who just celebrated her 30th birthday. “Through her, I discovered storytelling, and it changed my life.”
From a stubborn dedication to empirical problem solving, Mackay turned to the airy-fairy world filmmaking. She studied at York, creating the successful short called Clear Blue, which won the Hollywood Film Discovery Award and quickly paved the way for her first feature, Wet Bum, which opens in select Canadian cities Friday.
The story of Sam, a young woman (Julia Sarah Stone) on the verge of adulthood, Wet Bum is a coming of age story told from a female perspective. And unlike the boy variety of the genre, the central character isn’t always likable.
Prone to daydreaming and spending countless hours absorbed in the daily dramas of high school, Sam can be selfish and insular, and frequently insensitive to her own family.
“I think, looking back, I was really focused on myself – like most teenagers. I’d get angry about the stupidest things and freak out over nothing…. But that’s the fun part about writing: you get perspective.”
Mackay says Wet Bum is probably the most personal project she has ever written, with many of the events inspired by her own journal entries.
“I grew up in a small town, St Mary’s, Ontario, where my parents ran and owned the local retirement home, Kingsway Lodge. They pretty much forced me, well, lightly pushed me into working as a cleaning woman there. It was nepotism, but really a great lesson from my parents because every time you entered a room, you were entering someone’s whole life,” she says.
“It changed my understanding of the world. You’d encounter dramatic, amazing, sometimes terrifying people. And whether they were nice or angry, they all taught me something different and made me grown up a little bit faster than the average girl. I mean, it made me think of where I wanted to be at the end, because that’s what you see, and I don’t know if every teenager is thinking about that kind of thing.”
Mackay says it gave her a deeper understanding of empathy, but in writing the script, she also learned a lot about her younger self, and the insecurities she continues to wrestle with—especially concerning body image.
Wet Bum takes its title from the fact our central character Sam refuses to take off her dripping wet bathing suit after her lifeguard lessons. She throws clothes on top of her moist spandex, which leads some to believe she has a bladder problem.
“Body image is a big part of the narrative. We all have body issues, and Sam is not developing at the same rate as her peers. And that makes taking control of your own body really difficult. We’re watching her go through that, and it’s really difficult. I mean, I’m 30 and I’m still dealing with it.”
To capture the right brand of inner awkwardness, as well as the gosling-swan transformation, Mackay looked to Julia Sarah Stone — a young actor whose physical presence conjures thoughts of a greyhound puppy: almost too much limb length for the body mass, but an undeniably cute package.
“Sam is the runt of the litter, and Julia has this incredible thing about her. She doesn’t have the standard body type you’d expect from a movie, and that’s the point. We’re all different. But she’s also fascinating to look at, and she has these incredible eyes that can emote, but she can also look really, really beautiful – and really, really strange.”
Feeling comfortable in your female skin can be a lifelong challenge, and its one Mackay feels lucky to address – just by existing as a woman in the film industry.
“It’s an exciting and scary time to be in film. Scary because so much stuff is being made it’s more competitive. Every festival seems to get 1,000 more submissions every year. And it’s great and amazing to have so many kinds of stories being told, but this is supposed to be my livelihood, and the models are changing. There is less pressure to put out a blockbuster… and the industry has made a real push on the female side trying to get more women in positions of power,” she says.
“But… I have noticed that if a guy makes a movie that plays a big festival, they suddenly get all these job offers and have all these crazy meetings. And, this is sounding like a rant now, but I have seen stronger films from female directors, and they never end up getting that kind of attention.”
Fortunately for Mackay, she found a supporter in producer Lauren Grant (The Colony, Picture Day) and her partner, John Bain, founder of Search Engine Films, the distribution company that will open Wet Bum theatrically.
“I feel pretty lucky,” says Mackay from her parents’ home in St. Mary’s. “But every once in a while, I wish film were a bit more like math or science – where there’s a problem you can solve, and it’s either right or wrong – at some level. In film, there is no right or wrong, just a lot of different ways to answer the same question.”
Wet Bum opens May 29 in select cities. Lindsay Mackay will be in attendance for a Q&A at Vancouver’s Cineplex Odeon International Village following the 7:30 screening.