The other day I wrote a column about how documentaries premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival have a better chance of immediate turnaround for Oscar consideration. I mentioned Jessica Yu’s “Last Call at the Oasis” simply because it’s an issue-oriented film, and now that I’ve actually seen the doc I believe it truly is on track for certain Academy recognition.
And someone should pick it up as soon as possible. Like TIFF docs programmer Thom Powers noted in his intro at the film’s premiere, distributors shouldn’t have any trouble finding a target audience. It’s necessary viewing for anyone on the planet who drinks water. But while it could wait until next year -- and just as with “Food, Inc.” before it, it will still be nominated a year later if it waits -- most of this film’s points are best communicated as soon as possible.
I mention the Oscar-nominated “Food, Inc.” as a comparable doc. This isn’t a random selection, because both that film and “Oasis” were produced by Elise Pearlstein. Participant Media was also involved with these as well as the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” which is another easily related doc. Not everything the company touches is Academy gold (“Waiting for Superman” surprisingly missed the cut this year), but they’ve definitely got a good reputation for cause docs, and “Oasis” is one of the better of its kind.
I’m not usually one for the kind, and I very much dislike the abridged adaptation thing done with “Food, Inc.,” which is more a light introduction to and infomercial for the literary works that inspired it than its own necessary entity. “Oasis” is also very much a rush through the gamut of problems related to the global water crisis and environmental concerns (including light touches on subject matter previously covered in “An Inconvenient Truth,” “GasLand,” “Flow: For the Love of Water” and others), much of it based on Alex Prud’homme’s new book “The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century” and the activism of Erin Brockovich-Ellis (this almost serves as a sequel to Soderbergh’s film on her).
There is a LOT of stuff presented in this film, with coverage of everything from climate change and aquifer depletion to sewage treatments to endangered fish to amphibian mutation to hurricanes to carcinogenic pollutants in drinking water. And plenty more. As a foundation on all this, though, it actually seems quite thorough and the flow from topic to topic streams very nicely. If it makes us have to read more after the lights go up, this is probably a positive point. But in spite of what one of the interview subjects, Dr. Peter Gleick, told the TIFF crowd, the film doesn’t make us as much an expert as he is. No doc is that good.
I also have been skeptical of the scare tactics of films like “An Inconvenient Truth,” especially after Ondi Timoner’s “Cool It” calmed the global warming cause down some. I could see a responding doc taking on the fearmongering aspects of “Oasis,” yet Yu also is smart in how she arranges the chapters of her film so that it climaxes with an amusing segment starring Jack Black that’s like something out of “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” and then she finishes optimistic on relatively high notes.
Funny that I should like Yu’s venture into issue documentary more than I do her more arty nonfiction works, like “Protagonist.” It’s a bit of a reversal on the reaction I had with Timoner’s similar move into issue territory last year. I’d love to see Yu direct whatever Oscar-worth issue doc comes next from Pearlstein and Participant, especially if she’s able to make it as simultaneously imperative and entertaining as “Oasis.” If it can reference films even more diverse than the “There Will Be Blood,” “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Network” allusions and quotes that pop up here (not to mention the obvious abundance of “Erin Brockovich” clips), even better.
One final note for anyone seeing the film in the theater: don’t buy the jumbo beverage from the concession stand or otherwise drink too much before or during the film. “Oasis” opens with a splishy-sploshy title sequence then goes right into a montage of waterfalls and flowing streams, and that’s just the beginning. Even without filling your bladder you’ll be running for the restroom at the end, if you can wait so long.
"Last Call at the Oasis" is currently without a distributor.
Recommended If You Like: "Food, Inc."; "Erin Brockovich"; water