Written by Anna Harrison
75, really, is an arbitrary number, plucked from thin air to try and represent the thoughts swirling around my head, and in this case, it feels disingenuous. To give Wet House a numerical score is to strip it of all its compassion and makes me feel as if I am ranking the human lives that Wet House showcases, but there’s that little 75 in the corner anyway, though it’s practically meaningless.
Wet House follows the lives of several men in Milwaukee who live in wet houses, facilities where chronic alcoholics are given a room, a monthly stipend, and an observed place in which to drink. So you could call those who work in these wet houses professional enablers, but that would be an oversimplification: the wet houses exist to keep alcoholics off the streets and out of shelters, hospitals, etc., saving taxpayer money and attempting to provide the safest place possible for these men while not driving them away or overwhelming them by forcing sobriety. Some of the employees of these wet houses, such as a woman named Shearise, were alcoholics themselves or family members of alcoholics, and so understand the position these men are in.
Director Benjamin May employs a direct cinema style in Wet House: he lets the camera simply observe, never commenting himself but letting us decide. It creates a judgment-free film, one that refuses to condemn its subjects. And, indeed, it’s hard to condemn them: these men are tragic figures above all else, people with strong relationships, hopes, and dreams—Dan had an offer to play hockey at Harvard before an injury drove him to drink, Petie used to have his beading displayed at an art museum—but trapped by a disease they have lost control of. That’s another triumph of Wet House—it addresses alcoholism truly as a disease, not something that everyone can just buckle down and get rid of if they put in the work. May shows us men that we pity, but never lets us forget that they are men.
Even disregarding its subjects, Wet House proves compelling on a technical level. May and directors of photography Daniel Levin and Giovanni Autran employ some absolutely gorgeous shots, often accompanied by a jazz score from Jeremy Ylvisaker and the band Fat Kid Wednesdays. Milwaukee becomes transformed into a winter wonderland, her citizens framed against a backdrop of snow.
It would be easy to cut a film that just shows these people at their lowest, taking cheap shots to generate a perverse kind of interest, but May avoids that (though he doesn’t shy away from showing the darker sides of his subjects’ lives), instead opting to show the everyday existence of these men, good and bad, thereby allowing his audience to connect with them more personally. Never once does he look down on any of the wet house residents, and so neither can his audience; we can’t “otherize” them in an attempt to disengage, and therein lies Wet House’s power: empathy.
Wet House played at the Atlanta Film Festival.