On first blush Ali Weinstein’s documentary Mermaids focuses its glimpse at the titular sea myth’s power towards the whimsical and fun. She takes us from the days of old at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (which is still in operation) to a contemporary trend of mer-lovers creating or commissioning their own tails for public expositions or some much needed private rest and relaxation. Vicki Smith relays fond memories from when she was a teenager performing underwater with an air hose for packed auditoriums. Rachel Smith (no relation) takes us through the backstage preparations before swimming within a Sacramento mermaid bar. Julz Owen shows how she manufactures her own fins. And Cookie de Jesus basks in the excitement of discovering she’s no longer the only “mermaid” in Harlem.
Everything we see is brimming with joyous wonder both on the faces of those wearing the tails and those seeing them in their splendor—children and adults alike. Weinstein cuts back and forth between these four women with quasi chapter breaks of ethereal underwater scenes overlaid by Anastasia Phillips’ narration of different cultural takes on the aquatic creature’s expansive folklore. But while this sheen is authentically drawn, its amiable façade is soon revealed to also be covering years of psychological pain and torment with a new skin of transformative identity. Mermaid life isn’t therefore merely a job, hobby, or metaphorical escape from the daily grind of existence. It is truly a means for rebirth—a tool with which to combat tragedy and remember the beauty that resides within.
Context arrives in all its uncensored honesty. It can be universal with Vicki explaining how Weeki Wachee provided a direction beyond the usual choice between college and marriage for a 1960s teen. It can be rooted in tragedy and evolved into hope like with Rachel and her mother Laurie battling demons after their brother/son’s death. And it can be literal reinvention of body, mind, and soul—a window towards a brand new self as Julz transitions from man to woman and Cookie stifles alternate personalities stemming from horrific abuse as a child. This is how a lark turns into a bona fide phenomenon, a hobby into a way of life. While strangers snap photos and smile at the spectacle, these “performers” reclaim the strength and confidence to survive.
Suddenly those stories Phillips shares have meaning beyond fantastical fairy tale. The idea of mermaids being the remnants of women lost at sea resonates as these real-life women transform their entire demeanor with the simple adornment of a tight-fit leg slip culminating into a single silicone flipper. Each tail might be uniquely suited in style/size to the woman wearing it, but their purpose is identical regardless. They hide gender and make everything from the waist down an artistic representation of the person within. This freedom through uniformity helps cultivate the individuality necessary to be the emboldened and courageous best self they were too afraid to be before as a result of external factors. They embrace the catharsis of becoming something else while actually becoming what they’ve always hoped.
There’s unparalleled power to this truth. These women have taken a like-minded community and made it into a form of self-prescribed therapy unlike anything else they’ve ever tried previously. By showing the world a form of artifice that quite literally strips away the parts of them they’ve struggled to cope with in a public forum through distraction, they too can forget those troubles and live in the moment. The fun and camaraderie that has allowed Vicki to maintain friendships with all her former “mermaids” and provided Rachel and Laurie a familial outlet with which to overcome their grief has also made it so Cookie doesn’t focus on her self-loathing and depression and Julz doesn’t self-consciously wonder who is dismissing her as a “freak.” As mermaids they’re forever adored.
Weinstein packs a lot in her 76-minute film so we feel as though we know all four principals. It helps that each has an external means of encouragement to talk about what they have gone through. Archival Weeki Wachee footage shows us the celebrity bestowed upon Vicki. Laurie swoops in to validate Rachel’s self-proclaimed “weirdness.” Cookie is never without her sweetly gung-ho husband Ralph. And Julz has a new girlfriend who accepts her as she is as well as her “Mer-Poppa” Tom, the creator of Daryl Hannah’s tail in Splash who has taught her his craft. We’re given access to their support systems and therefore their stories via a place of absolute safety and trust in the hopes they may inspire other lost souls searching for unconditional acceptance.
Mermaids screened at the Buffalo International Film Festival.