Cleveland Heep is the superintendent of an apartment complex called The Cove, where he spends most of his run-down, burnt-out existence maintaining the slightly run-down building and replacing its burnt-out light bulbs. Living at The Cove is a collection of quirky tenants: A bodybuilder who exercises only the right side of his body. A crossword puzzle whiz. A boy who discerns deep stories in the artwork on cereal boxes. And a group of stoners who sit around all day discussing the merits of various heavy metal groups while trying to coin the newest pop-culture catchphrase.
But there’s something else strange about The Cove besides its renters. There have been mysterious, nighttime goings-on around the swimming pool. That’s when Cleveland discovers a mysterious young woman who has been living in a secret chamber beneath the pool. She is a “Narf”—a water nymph with special powers to see deep into people’s lives and read their futures. Story, as she is named, is in great peril, unable to return to the Blue World to fulfill her destiny to become the Madame Narf, the queen of the nymphs. She is being stalked by vicious, wolf-like beasts called “Scrunts” that are able to blend into the tall grass surrounding the apartment complex. These Scrunts are determined to kill her to prevent her from returning to the Blue World.
It’s up to Cleveland and the skeptical, oddball cast of characters at The Cove to protect Story and help her achieve her mission: saving her world and, in the process, all of mankind.
Cleveland and the apartment tenants willingly put themselves in danger to help Story. The tenants learn through Story’s powers of perception that their lives are all interconnected, and therefore one person’s actions affect everyone else’s. Despite their quirks and varied personalities, they all work together.
Indeed, in Lady in the Water it is the weak, the despised and those that the world would look down upon who become heroes. Even Story is humble about her calling: “I don’t know why I’m the Madame Narf. I’m clumsy. They all made fun of me. I don’t know how to lead.”
As the first to discover Story, Cleveland especially goes out of his way to protect and encourage her. When she admits some of her fears, he affirms her, “You are very brave. You were always meant to be a leader.” Story’s presence—and, more specifically, Cleveland’s part in returning her to the Blue World—help the tragic character face his past demons. Story tells him, “You have a purpose. All beings have a purpose. You think you are alone. We are all connected.” In addition, another character encourages Cleveland to not give up.
Vick, a resident writer, learns from Story that his chosen life path will eventually lead to his death, but because his cause is noble, he willingly chooses to continue if it will benefit mankind.
Lady in the Water is a fairy tale that posits a mythical past in which mankind was protected by “those in the water” who counseled him and spoke of the future. But, a prologue tells us, “Mankind forgot how to listen” and became violent. Eventually, those in the water gave up and left mankind to his fate. The prologue adds, however, that mankind needs only get a glimpse of what was left behind and he will be saved.
The world inhabited by the Narf and the Scrunts is governed by certain rules enforced by beings called Tartutics, lawgivers of sorts. For example, a certain Scrunt is breaking the rules by stalking Story, which leads one character to ask, “Where are the Tartutics? Where is the justice?” The mythology says that Story can be saved only through the intervention of a Healer, a Guardian, a Symbolist and a Guild of Seven to protect her. (Part of the film’s mystery is determining which of the apartment’s tenants fulfills each of those prophesied roles.)
One tenant believes Story is really an angel. Another tries to decipher a mystery hidden in a crossword puzzle, leading a woman to say, “He’s hearing the voice of God through a crossword puzzle.” (She also calls him a “prophet.”) The Healer is told he must say something “to bring out your energy.” Story has the power to look into a person’s past and future, and in a few instances she predicts what is to come for a character.
Mr. Leeds, a recluse who spends his days in front of the TV watching war news, asks Cleveland, “Does man deserve to be saved?” (One of those news reports mentions military chaplains praying with their troops before battle.) An Asian tenant keeps a Buddha shrine in her apartment. As Cleveland faces a daunting task, he remembers his dead children and says, “I miss your faces. They remind me of God.”
Story isn’t used to wearing clothes. When we first see her she has donned one of Cleveland’s shirts. When he wakes up and sees her on his couch (he doesn’t yet know who she is), he says, “You really shouldn’t be here. I’m old-fashioned that way.” Later, when she walks into the room completely naked (we see only the back of her leg), it’s not played sexually but to illustrate her innocence. Cleveland averts his gaze and asks her to put some clothes on. She’s later seen from above (and from a distance) while showering and afterwards with only a towel draped around her.
One female character wears midriff-baring outfits. A few women wear bikinis at poolside. A pool inspector asks Cleveland if any tenants have gone skinny dipping recently.
The Scrunt is a huge, wolf-like beast with deep-red eyes and rows of fangs. The sequences where it stalks Story and others are quite intense, and there are a handful of startling moments. One man is hauled down by the Scrunt. (The camera cuts away as we hear his screams and watch him getting jumped upon.) We see deep, bloody cuts in Story’s legs where she was attacked by a Scrunt. Cleveland slips on the pool deck, cracks his head on the concrete and falls unconscious in the water.
One character begins to mouth the s-word but cuts himself off. There are two uses of “a–” and one each of “d–n” and “bloody.” God’s name is interjected half-a-dozen times.
The stoners who share one apartment constantly smoke cigarettes and what are presumably marijuana joints. They’re also shown with beers in hand, as are others at a pool party. Tequila gets a mention.
Lady in the Water started out as a bedtime story that director M. Night Shyamalan (much lauded as a storyteller for his films The Village, Signs, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense) told to his young daughters as they grew up. It has the organic, layered feel of a tale that is being woven on the fly over a long period of time, right down to the names of the various beings that inhabit this mythical world. (“Daddy, what are the water nymphs called?” “Um, they’re called … Narfs. Yes, Narfs.”)
Interestingly, thoughts of the Trinity and other spiritual realities may run through your head if you choose to see Lady in the Water, but it would be a mistake to read too much into this myth. Yes, Story is a savior of sorts (in this case, through prophetic encouragement) and implicit throughout the film is the idea that mankind has made a wrong turn somewhere and needs someone from outside our world to save it. But that’s a theme common to a lot of mythology. As C.S. Lewis would say, it’s part of a universal longing pointing toward the One True Myth.
What makes more of an impression in this lightweight yet strangely shadowy fable is the way it tangles itself up in established tales of fairies and sirens and nymphs, and the way it employs a mystical hodgepodge to keep things moving. That and a few scary moments (and a bit of violence) compete with entrancing twists and turns, as well as great messages about heroism and seeing the potential in everyone while steadfastly countering evil.