What good is a swimming pool if no one swims in it? That's what Venkatesh wonders. A hard-working hotel janitor in the coastal city of Panjim, India, he spends a lot of time up in a tree, where he watches a pool and the unhappy family it belongs to.
Behind a sprawling old house, a father tends to the landscaping around the pool. He plants flowers. He picks up dead leaves. His daughter sits by the pool and reads a book. They seldom speak, and when they do it is only in terse exchanges that would be hostile if they were not so listless. No one swims.
The scene is fascinating to Venkatesh, the youth at the center of The Pool, a film by the Milwaukee director Chris Smith. Smith is known for documentaries like American Movie and The Yes Men, but The Pool is a fictional film (based on a story by Randy Russell) and a quietly moving one.
What Venkatesh can't see from his perch is that father and daughter share an ugly, tragic memory. The memory has destroyed the family, not least because - this happens in families all the time - no one really talks about it. The details of what happened are slowly revealed as Venkatesh insinuates himself into the family and edges closer to that shimmering pool.
Smith has directed an extraordinary and appealing performance by Venkatesh Chavan, the young Panjim man who plays Venkatesh. That's no mean feat considering that the film is in Hindi, a language Smith does not speak, and that Chavan, like the other young performers, was not a professional actor.
Even before his entanglement with the family, Venkatesh lives a complicated life. He gets by, barely, scrubbing floors and doing laundry at the hotel. He earns extra cash in a business venture with a younger friend, Jhangir (played by Jhangir Badshah with street-savvy verve). The two hawk plastic bags until an eco-conscious ban on the bags destroys the enterprise.
Venkatesh infiltrates the family by letting the father think he can garden - illiterate, Venkatesh gets some training by having Jhangir read aloud from a book about gardening. The older man, played with grieving stoicism by veteran Bollywood star Nana Patekar, sees through the ruse, but he takes a paternal interest in Venkatesh.
Meanwhile Venkatesh cultivates a friendship with the daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan), thanks to his creepy strategy of following her around, getting to know her habits. Pretty Ayesha, who wears Western-style tank tops the boys disapprove of, is perplexed by the attention. But eventually the three young people settle into a chummy, outdoorsy routine of hikes and boat excursions. All of this leads to a low-key confrontation and an ambiguous finale.
In this season of Slumdog Millionaire, The Pool reminds me of that much more famous film, also about young people struggling with poverty in a changing India (and also directed by a Westerner). But whereas Slumdog tells its tale aggressively, with frenetic editing and electric shocks, The Pool's story emerges slowly, from small truths about the characters and their sleepy city.
The Pool also touches on far more nuanced ideas - about ambition and desire, about family secrets, about good deeds performed for not altogether good reasons.