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‘Water Like Fire’ Explores Life and Loss in Contradictory, Unexpected Ways

Water Like Fire is another film part of the lineup for the 40th Hawai’i International Film Festival. Directed by Mitchel Viernes, Chanel (Taiana Tully) navigates her days working at a local restaurant, while surfing in her spare time. With both her parents gone, her only remaining family member is Caleb (Randall Galius); her brother who’s fighting a drug addiction. No matter how strained their relationship is, nothing keeps Chanel from being by Caleb’s side, after he winds up in the hospital from a hit-and-run.

Water Like Fire is a drama through and through. Moments where there is joy and laughter are minimal, as the story moves along as the heart wrencher it is. But it’s clear that Viernes didn’t make this film sad for the sake of being sad. Rather, the weight it bears is to hone in on the bigger message addressed throughout, which is that while life can be fleeting, it’s all about what you make of it. The fact that Water Like Fire – which was shot in Oahu – was filmed at locations that are either no longer there or look different than before, as Viernes explained during the film’s Q&A, is symbolic of how fleeting the past can be.

The film is also about grief. Although it’s never indicated just how long ago Chanel and Caleb lost their parents nor the circumstances around it, it’s clear that it’s recent enough to where they were thrown headfirst into full-blown adulthood, whether they were ready for it or not. Despite their lives being polar opposites of each other, they’re still grieving, but in different ways. The title alone is a metaphor of just how. Chanel is like water – especially whenever she goes surfing – whereas Caleb is like fire, as indicated by the sound bites of crinkling flames whenever the past speaks to him.

Galius does an unnervingly good performance of someone fighting through drug addiction. Meanwhile, in vulnerable moments, Chanel verbalizes her stress. It’s the latter that falls flat. While Tully’s performance is equally top notch, the way her dialogue was written rubbed along the lines of more telling than showing. If her dialogue in those moments had been written a little better or if she expressed her grief in another way, perhaps it would have come across as more effective.

The first part of the film shows Chanel and Caleb in their own separate worlds, orbiting but rarely ever interacting with each other, prior to reuniting at the hospital following Caleb’s accident. Admittedly, the separate perspectives, while interesting, comes off as a little disjointed. However, by the time viewers arrive at the end of the film, it makes a lot more sense in a bigger way. While the story follows two estranged siblings reuniting, it also is a story of learning to help yourself.

With excellent performances from the entire cast, beautiful cinematography, and a story that’s, overall, skillfully executed, Water Like Fire stands out as a moving story of life and loss. While audiences should approach the film with a box of tissues at hand, they can also expect to take away a lot from watching the journeys Chanel and Caleb go on, together and apart.

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