Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) explains the narf's plight to a tenant while images of war play on the television in the background.

Lady in the Water

A film with a stuttering protagonist by M. Night Shyamalan

Reviewed by Darrell M. Dodge, MA, CCC-SLP

This is the fifth in a series of major films by M. Night Shyamalan that dramatize human redemption through socialization and compassion. Lady in the Water is actually very different from the previous four films in that it is intended to be a children's fairy tale accessible to adults.  But the themes common to all five films are worth reviewing:

In The Sixth Sense, a child psychiatrist (who seems to have recovered from a bullet wound inflicted by a former patient) and a boy who possesses the ability to perceive dead people acting in a parallel reality assist each other in finding redemption, connection, and peace with their loved ones. In Unbreakable (the least familiar of the films to me) a man who is actually a "superhero" character finds redemption when he learns to use his intuitive "superpowers" to identify and vanquish evil.  Signs tells the story of a former priest who rediscovers his faith and rescues his family when Earth is saved from an alien invasion by the coincidence (or plan) that the aliens are destroyed by contact with water. In The Village, an entire village -- purposefully isolated because of its founders' fear of the modern world -- is redeemed and humanized by an act of courage and strength by a blind woman who braves the unknown to get antibiotics for her dying lover.

In Lady in the Water, a lonely apartment manager named Cleveland Heep (played by Paul Giamatti) -- who was a doctor until his life was devastated by the murder of his wife and children -- is redeemed through his attempts to rescue and protect a lovely female visitor -- a "narf" named Story -- who has been sent from a supernatural "Blue World" to deliver a message to humans. These attempts inspire him to recover his true identity as a healer. In the process, Heep, who is a stutterer, is required to communicate with the residents of the apartment complex ("The Cove") to organize a rescue party. Heep struggles with his dysfluent speech and must overcome the challenges of incomplete knowledge and misleading information about an ancient story, unhelpfully exacerbated by an arrogant and jaded film critic who has just moved into Heep's apartment complex. Another barrier to the success of Heep's enterprise is the lack of self-confidence demonstrated by key characters, including Heep himself, Story, and Vick Ran, a writer (played by Shyamalan.) Vick is revealed to be the "vessel" for Story's muse, who is destined to write a book that will inspire a future U.S. president to bring positive change to the world. The members of Heep's rescue party work together to overcome the false roles and discover their true identities just in time to help supernatural beings called "Tartutics"  protect the narf from a hyena-like creature called a "scrunt" so that she can be carried back to the Blue World by the Eatlon -- a giant eagle. Just before she leaves, Heep and Story embrace and he thanks her for saving his life.

There is a strange element in the resolution of the story: while Vick is clearly identified as the writer whose works will be influential, it is Cleveland whose journals about his lost family are actually read by Story, deeply affecting her.

Critical Reception

Lady cannot be discussed without mentioning the wildly disparate responses from critics who have mostly written negative reviews and many Shyamalan fans who are more sympathetic to his films. This controversy may have helped damage the film's box office prospects. Some Shyamalan fans have blamed the bad reviews on the unflattering portrayal of the film critic, who is ultimately killed by the scrunt.  This would seem too easy, however. At least one critic (Mark Savlov of the Austin Chronicle) enjoyed the portrayal, calling it "one of several outlandishly fine performances in a film top-loaded with honest-to-goodness acting, a prize in genre filmmaking that's roughly as rare as peace in our time" (while nonetheless giving the film two stars out of four.) 

It would also be tempting to blame the critics' responses on Heep's relatively severe stuttering, which some reviewers called annoying. But Giamatti's performance has been almost uniformly cited as one of the film's strengths.

Most likely, however, these irritants are only contributing factors to the reviewers' lack of appreciation for the message Shyamalan is trying to convey. This, combined with the director's perceived "failure" to produce a "genre" horror or science fiction film with a satisfyingly chic surprise ending like that of The Sixth Sense produced a sense that Shyamalan "failed" to produce this time around. "Failure" is an apparently unforgivable sin in the mass media culture these days; particularly failure by an artist who seems aloof or lacking an appropriate lack of humility. Hence the Shyamalan bashing and piling on.

The Role of Stuttering in Heep's Redemption: An Overlooked Element of Lady in the Water

The first time Cleveland Heep stuttered severely on a /k/ sound at the first showing of Lady in the Water I attended, a fellow just to my left let out a simultaneous guffaw and stifled comic book "pshaw" that was accompanied by uneasy shifting and murmuring throughout the theatre. (People who stutter, are called upon continually to understand the surprised reactions of people to our seemly novel affliction.)

Despite Paul Giamatti's sincere attempts to produce a realistic stutter, he only rarely tripped the "stutter meter" in this reviewer's solar plexus. He did do a fine job of registering Heep's frustration with his speech dysfluencies, as well as his anticipation of stuttering. His dysfluencies also have a consistency (such as his difficulty with voicing /b/ and the vowel after /p/) that is characteristic of real stuttering.  Many stutterers watching the film will identify with Heep's taking on of a daunting speech task, as he is called upon and accepts the challenge of interviewing tenants to discover their specific talents and organize the narf's rescue party.

That a stutterer is "chosen" to be the story's most important communicator is similar in some respects to the "selection" of the blind girl Ivy to be the person who must journey through the forest to the gravel road and the life-saving medications in The Village. It wouldn't occur to most reviewers (or perhaps viewers for that matter) that taking on a task like this would be an act of courage for a stutterer. Shyamalan's selection of this disability for his protagonist would seem to imply that he does. Also, in a strange way, these two characters are perfect for the challenges they are given.  Because Ivy cannot see anyway, she can travel in the dark and is not afraid of it. Cleveland's ability to persevere in spite of his past and his frustrating speech dysfluencies have given him a toughness and compassion that make him a perfect healer.

Heep's stuttering disappears when he is speaking to or is around the narf, once he has gotten over the shock, fear, and annoyance at finding her in his pool. Heep and Ran's sister both notice this, but Shyamalan doesn't press the point too far. This allows the possibility that this temporary "cure" is akin to the situational fluency experienced by many stutterers when in the presence of people (for example, children) with whom they feel comfortable. Heep does stutter when he is alone, but this is not as unusual or rare as some suppose. And his stutter is most severe when he is speaking to the film critic.

The importance of the portrayal of stuttering in Lady in the Water cannot be underestimated. This is (to my knowledge) the first American film to feature relatively severe stuttering behavior by a major protagonist realistically and in a sympathetic manner. Although there might be a tendency of some viewers to look for a cause of Heep's stuttering in the previous loss of his wife and children, (who were murdered in their home when he was not there) there is nothing presented that would make his stuttering anything other than developmental in nature. No one in the film laughs at Heep's stuttering or seems to think less of him for it. In fact, he seems to be appreciated and respected by the tenants.  At one point, Vick's sister provides a word for Heep when he has a block, for which he thanks her: not a good model for listeners, but a natural response of some stutterers.

"No One is Ever Told Who They Are."

A stuttering protagonist is appropriate for a story that is in many ways about the difficulties of effective communication. Indeed, Shyamalan forces us to learn about many aspects of the myth that drives the story from a swivel-hipped Korean college student's sporadic and often incoherent interviews of her Korean-speaking mother. Knowledge of the myth is literally assembled from half-heard bits and pieces. And at one point, critical parts are pieced together from Story's sign language, relayed from Vick's sister to Heep. In a similar way, members of the rescue party are provided inaccurate roles in the story through stereotypes and story conventions provided by the film critic and from assumptions made by Heep. The point of the myth is that "no one is ever told who they are," the student explains to Heep at one point. Accordingly, a man chosen as an "interpreter" finally realizes that he has been miscast and that his son who reads significance into cereal box artwork is the interpreter. And Heep, who at first was mis-identified as Story's guardian, is revealed to be her healer.

A similar lack of knowledge is only overcome painstakingly by humans, who may spend an entire lifetime without finding an identity outside of conventional role-models, and may never know what it is even if they have found it. In Shyamalan's mythic story, the problem is that humans don't listen to the right voices in themselves when they seek the answer. What are humans listening to?  Every image of television that is glimpsed in this film is an image of past and present wars. That seems a bit simplistic. Maybe he should have thrown in some clips of "The Price is Right."


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1994 - 2007 Darrell M. Dodge, MA CCC-SLP

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Last Updated: Wednesday, February 28, 2007