Buoyancy is a super-upsetting, feel-awful, very worthwhile film. Get ready for a bad time and watch!

Every day—every single stupid day of this singularly stupid year—we add another item to the never-ending list of awful things “someone should really do something about.” Hey, did you know that around 200,000 boys and men are currently used as slaves in the Thai fishing industry? Someone should really do something about that…

Buoyancy is a reminder that, at a bare fucking minimum, we owe this world’s tortured souls our attention. We can’t all pelt injustice with the gold coins Jeff Bezos hordes in his dragon dungeon until it surrenders. But we can bear witness. Oh, to be clear, bearing witness is the absolute lowest of low bars to clear when it comes to the host of ills plaguing the planet. Yet many folks whine about even doing that.

A negative review of Buoyancy actually concluded with the phrase “gosh, I really don’t know who this film will be for.” That critic conceded that it opened his eyes to an ongoing tragedy but, like, what’s he supposed to do with all that, you know?

Gosh, maybe internalize the suffering and let that inform how you move through the world.

Gosh, maybe let it motivate you to investigate which major brand products you purchase may be involved in the Thai fishing trade.

Gosh, maybe carry the victims in your heart, if it isn’t too itty-bitty, Grinch-shrank small.

Australian writer/director Rodd Rathjen’s Buoyancy should stick with you. It is the fictional story of Chakra (Sarm Heng), a 14-year-old Cambodian boy whose search for a better life leaves him a slave to fishing boat captain Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro). Starved, psychologically and physically tormented, and forced to emulate the monster holding him captive in order to survive, Chakra’s story is an amalgamation of 200,000 individual tales of torment.

Buoyancy is straight-up not a very good time. That’s, you know, the point. The instrument of murder used in the film’s climax is arguably one of the most gnarly, upsetting weapons of all time when considered in context. Heng’s performance is mesmerizing and haunting in a way that eclipses every performance from all middle-aged white “method actors” who treat their costars like shit for months “because art.” Heng’s performance is the quiet kind, where nightmares churn behind eyes clenched shut before that inevitable, awful eruption.

Watching something this relentlessly unpleasant is a special kind of burden right now. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, at the very least, summon the courage and strength to insert stories like this into whatever empty space we find within ourselves whenever we can.

For those of us who consider empathy to be the price of a ticket to live, films like Buoyancy can make us feel small and useless. But there is power in letting them in. There is strength in learning a new cause for which to advocate. There is decency in not letting stories of modern slaves fall on deaf ears. So, when you can, bear witness. Because, gosh, this film should really be for all of us.

Grade = A

Other Critical Voices to Consider

  • Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has a just brilliant review, including this observation: “There is evil and it helps keep the world running, our clothes and food coming. This is the greatest, most difficult, most unspeakable violence laid bare in Rathjen’s measured, insistently political movie.”
  • Jessica Kiang at Variety calls it “a taut and urgent message movie that tracks with pounding single-mindedness the horror of human trafficking in a journey that, like so many, starts out with the promise of advancement but ends up a regression to a primitive, brutish state of being, in which only the cruelest survive.”
  • Andiee Paviour of Nobody’s Reading This But Me describes the film’s style perfectly: “Even the sunlight looks defeated and faded, as though it, too, has sacrificed all hope. The implication, however, could not be more explicit: when your imperative is to kill or be killed, survival becomes a sacrifice of self.”

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