There’s a lie at the heart of Rodd Rathjen’s Buoyancy, and that lie is freedom. It’s a fantasy spun by capital: that a boy might be free to leave his family, forego the confined and overdetermined life of an uncompensated worker living under the thumb of his father, to make bigger money elsewhere, on his own. Elsewhere, in this case, is Thailand. The lie, which the boy readily buys into, is that he can leave home for better work and come back, enjoying the riches of having made good on that false promise. Then, the story goes, his life — his independence — can begin.
Unsurprisingly, things don’t quite shake out that way. Take the title literally: This story soon becomes a desperate, violent effort to stay afloat and alive. And Rathjen’s tense, foreboding film wastes little time establishing as much early on, when its young Cambodian hero, the 14-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng), makes a deal with the devil. A local boy sells him on the idea of escaping to Thailand. Since Chakra has no money of his own and thus no way to get to there, he’s tempted by, and eventually accepts, a parallel alternative: relinquishing his first month of wages to the broker that gets him across the border.
This is wage slavery on its face, and if Chakra doesn’t know this before he sets out on his odyssey, it very quickly becomes clear as the world of Bangkok grows eerily foreboding, the means of traveling there disconcertingly covert and uncomfortable. Surely Chakra — who, as wonderfully played by Heng, is as terse of the lip as his demeanor is intense — knew that this would not be an above-board endeavor. Still, though never depicted as a naive, he is taken aback.
What’s immediately striking about Buoyancy is the speed with which it establishes this premise and, through only the briefest bits of dialogue and action, convinces us of Chakra’s inner emotional calculations without him even having to express them. The conditions of his life make them clear. For Chakra, this choice to leave home is straightforward. It’s the difference between being paid for his work, no matter how grueling or dehumanizing, and getting nothing for it, which is what life amounts to under a father who sees his sons as little more than free labor. He knows this much: During a fight with his father — their only scene together — he asks: “Why did you have so many kids?” The question bites with irony. You can readily see how Chakra might think of his life at home as its own form of slavery.
But the more violating and terrifying life that awaits Chakra when he leaves home is what will dominate Buoyancy. It’s also when the movie livens up, grows more foreboding, and begins to outgrow the straightforward, familiarly naturalistic style that overpowers its opening scenes. Bangkok, when Chakra first sees it, passes by in a mesmerizing blur. A droning, bone-tickling noise — like the sound of a boat that’s never still, that’s staffed with enslaved men who seem never to stop working — fills our ears even before Chakra knows where he’s going. And when he gets there, he will find himself the victim of a cruel trick, one in which he doesn’t wind up in a factory, as promised, but rather on an ocean trawler: trapped on all sides by water, with no means of escape and no way home. (Those who try to escape pay the price for it.)
Most of all, Chakra will be in thrall the tense and unexpectedly fascinating relationships he has with other men on board, and the emotional intricacies of Rathjen’s script reveal themselves. He befriends a fellow laborer, an older man who has left home to provide for his family. But he also, over time, becomes the pet of the boss on board, a man named Rom Ran (Thanawut Ketsaro), who runs his crew with a grimacing fervor for violence that makes him utterly unpredictable and his friendliness toward Chakra (relative to everyone else, at least) untrustworthy. “I was smart to get you young,” the man says. “The older ones know more, but they can’t survive onboard.” Nor can they be trained to become violent, to survive, in the way that Rom Ran, a man whose life is not so unlike what seems to await Chakra, has done since he was a boy.
It grows thrilling to watch. Rathjen’s careful script and intensive eye for environmental details deliver all of this to us with a steady rhythm. Repetition, a sense of the daily drag, is key. We see the men going below deck to sleep, only to be shouted awake in seemingly no time. We learn to dread the night almost as much as they do, because we learn — as they do — that with night comes hardly any rest. One man goes crazy. Chakra, the youngest person on board, seemingly becomes a surrogate for the man’s children. In the most moving scene, the man’s madness spills forth as quiet grief: He mistakes the child for his own son, and Chakra, fatherless and at sea, plays along with it.
What greets us at the climax of Buoyancy is something like mutiny, though within the trellis of power plays and interpersonal friction Rathjen has constructed in the preceding 80 minutes of the movie’s runtime, that swift shift in fortune emerges far more complicatedly than at first appears. It’s also, ultimately, when the movie backs down, somewhat, from the power and terror of its premise. Its climax ultimately capitalizes on a sense of Chakra’s slow conversion, or rather reduction, into the raw survivalism encouraged by this life. Seeing how far that can go isn’t exactly what one wants when they watch this film. But it’s what seems inevitable — moreso than the outcome envisioned here. It isn’t quite the ending the movie has earned. But it’s to the movie’s credit that it earns so much.