There seems to be no limit to the number of coming-of-age comedies that mine the dark period of adolescence for the comedy of embarrassment, anxiety, and the eternal drama inherent in going after something you want—in this case, getting it on with a pretty girl. You might even go so far as to say that such stories write themselves. When Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, who cut his teeth on short films and a collaboration/mentorship with Roman Polanski in the early ’60s, made Deep End in 1970, Mike Nichols’s blockbuster The Graduate was still very much on everyone’s mind, but Skolimowski’s second feature in English could not be farther apart in tone, style, or even what the 15-year-old protagonist seems to want, compared to the amorous adventures of Benjamin Braddock. Preceding Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver by one and six years, respectively, Skolimowski’s hallucinatory, dissonant, yet compelling tale of hormonal confusion seems to anticipate both.
Mike (John Moulder-Brown), a shy, mop-topped adolescent, has just taken a job at the local swimming pool, and from this new vantage point begins to reassess his previously comfortable life by observing changes both inside and out, sometimes through peepholes, sometimes bearing down on him like a freight train. He’s hardly on the job for one day when a voluptuous, middle-aged patron nearly suffocates him in her bosom, only to toss him aside when he’s served his intended purpose. Mike soon becomes infatuated with his mentor/co-worker Susan, played by Jane Asher, who’s 10 years his senior, and who explains to him that such harassment is simply part of the job, and not to worry about it.
Skolimowski’s visual style here, both taking from and giving back to Polanski (there’s an awful lot of The Tenant and What? on display), seems to have been designed after its grabby, spastic protagonist, darting from wall to wall and peering into keyholes and around corners, smashing a mirror when he sees his own lustful, jealous eyes gazing back at him. At one point, presumably in fit of manic hysteria brought on by recent, nocturnal wanderings, he attempts to compete in a footrace against runners at his old school, where he was himself a celebrated athlete. The lust and emotional turmoil in Mike’s life, unsatisfactorily expressed in words and “normal” actions, overflows into everything else, leading Mike to make a long string of irrational choices, each one seemingly more desperate than the last. But just as Max Fischer would come to learn in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, the object of his affection is capable of pushing back just as hard. Even when Mike seems to be at the end of his tether, Susan intuitively exploits a moment of shame (he busts the gemstone off her ring with his teeth when she backhands him) to force him back to planet Earth, at least for the time being.
As he would in his other best-known film, 1982’s Moonlighting, Skolimowski’s relentlessly hyperactive camera mirrors not just the increasing psychological and emotional instability of its main character, but suggests something is amiss all around him as well. Deep End is as soaked in pheromones and nervous electricity as Mike, but he’s as much a product of the world of desire that surrounds him as one of its participants, and when the end finally comes, there’s only a reprise of earlier dream imagery to suggest that there was anything other than a spasmodic, hormonal twitch involved in bringing about its conclusion.