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Yes, the fish-man romance movie deserves those Oscar noms

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The unsurprising depths of The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape of Water.
Sally Hawkins in the lead role of The Shape of Water.
20th Century Fox

If you’re not sure why a film about a woman who falls in love with a man-shaped fish creature has more 2018 Academy Award nominations than any other contender — it’s probably because you haven’t seen it.

[Warning: This piece contains minor spoilers for The Shape of Water.]

The Shape of Water was highly anticipated by Guillermo del Toro fans. While the director is perennially trying to get yet another long-gestating project off the ground, The Shape of Water was known to be his most personal. Del Toro has talked extensively about the effect that Creature From the Black Lagoon had on him, both as a young person and a young filmmaker — he first pursued the the director’s chair on a remake more than 15 years ago.

His idea was to focus on the creature itself, and, by the end of the film, grant it the romantic success with the female lead that he’d always believed it should’ve had. Universal Pictures rejected his pitch, and the proposed remake floundered (sorry).

And so, del Toro channeled that creative energy into The Shape of Water, a story about Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning worker in a top-secret government lab who forms an unlikely and strong connection with what the scientists refer to as “the Asset,” an equally mute humanoid aquatic creature. It is also the story of the network of other overlooked and ostracized people in Elisa’s life who are inspired to help her, in the face of those who would destroy a beautiful, unique and feeling thing out of fear.

Yes, she totally bones the fish-man

Sorry, that’s another pun, isn’t it?

A lot of talk around the film has involved confirming this fact: Yes, Elisa and the creature definitely consummate their relationship. But like all the other oddities of The Shape of Water’s unusual concept — a mute protagonist, a romantic fish-man, an examination of female sexual power (including masturbation!), Russian spies and a secret government laboratory ripped straight out of a pulp novel — del Toro treats every moment with respect and gravitas.

And that respect is carried to the audience by every actor on the screen — something the Academy has recognized with no fewer than three acting nominations.

In the lead role, Sally Hawkins is perfectly capable of moving you to tears without speaking a word, of commanding the presence of an entire scene with just her face and hands. In a pivotal scene — brilliantly written and staged, but entirely dependent on its actors to work — she demands that a friend repeat her words out loud as she says them, so that she knows he is not ignoring her. In her face, we see what her monologue means to her — at the same time that we hear in his voice how it affects him.

Michael Shannon is perfectly pitched as an antagonist. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins define “supporting actor,” playing collaborative roles that elevate the performances around them. And then there’s Doug Jones.

The Shape of Water is still the fish-fucking movie

And it’s unafraid to be the fish-fucking movie.

But it is also Guillermo del Toro at the top of his craft — if he were a PhD student, this would be his dissertation. Themes that have resonated disparately in his work are brought together here — the power of popular culture to soothe and support; the strength and value of the unique, weird (or queer); monsters defeated by embracing monstrosity; a united, loving diversity pushing back against a destructive, violent homogeneity; the lesser but insidious evil of allowing evil to flourish through nonaction.

Del Toro takes risks that shouldn’t work — a particular sequence in homage to old Hollywood musicals comes to mind — but do. He has created such a specifically crafted film, from costuming and lighting and set design to music and writing, that it grips you from the first few seconds, without showing a character or even displaying more than one shot.

The Shape of Water is indelible proof that it is not the concepts within popular art — or so-called lowbrow entertainment — that restrict the genre’s emotional resonance, but the complexity of storytelling we use to support those concepts.

And, above all, the sincerity we are willing to invest in them.