The Shape of Water, the latest feature film from Mexican writer and director Guillermo del Toro, is a ripe work of cinema from the irrefutably imaginative mind of a matured filmmaker. For the past twenty-five years, del Toro has enthralled the masses with everything from colossal-budget comic book movies like Hellboy to obscure gothic gems like Pan’s Labyrinth, yet it’s rare in any filmmaker’s career to see an esteemed “master of horror” take on a more delicate, whimsical, and romantic tale—and to do so with such finesse.

The Shape of Water continues a long tradition of, what we’ll call, “beauty and the beast” stories. This narrative archetype can be seen at play as far back as the ancient Greeks, and it has reverberated, deservingly so, throughout theatrical history, bringing us filmgoers an array of more familiar stories—Creature From the Black Lagoon, Edward Scissorhands, and, of course, Beauty and the Beast, for instance. Del Toro’s take on this age-old legend, however, seems to right the wrongs of the former movies mentioned. In those movies, the lovers meet tragic fates, bidding farewell to one another with no hope of ever being reunited in this cruel world, or even worse, with one of them being killed—à la Creature From the Black Lagoon. Del Toro’s lovers, on the other hand, swim away together in romantic ecstasy, escaping near death and disappearing into what we imagine, or at least hope, to be a bright future.

The film centers around a 1960s night shift worker called Elisa—a mute cleaning lady, played by the revelatory Sally Hawkins. She works in a secret government facility somewhere in America. Her seemingly coy demeanor and her inconsequential position grant her unusual access to the goings-on of the facility. It is herein where she discovers they’re keeping a mysterious amphibian creature in captivity, and running a series of inhumane experiments on him. The head of this secret operation is a brutish colonel, played by the villainous Michael Shannon. He’s the quintessential white suburban alpha-male—you can just picture him reading Dale Carnegie books over his eggs and bacon in the morning. Every night, Elisa takes her lunch break and shares it with the creature, unbeknownst to the colonel. She and the creature form a bond which leads to something more—a passionate romance. Along with her housemate, a down-on-his-luck artist (Richard Jenkins), her protective co-worker (Octavia Spencer), and a morally upright scientist who works at the facility (Michael Stuhlbarg), she conspires to release the creature back into the wild—and from there the story follows.

Hiding out in their bohemian apartment, nestled above an elegant, vintage movie theater, Elisa and the creature grow closer to one another. It should be mentioned that, along with her being mute, the creature too cannot speak. Both outsiders, they form a kind of language of their own: a mixture of sign language and the sort of intuitive understanding that lovers develop over time. She keeps him in a bathtub of water in her apartment, feeding him and teaching him. Eventually, they make love together—beauty and beast—in a scene that could be described as equally startling and beguiling.

In many ways, the creatures in both The Shape of Water and Creature From the Black Lagoon are quite alike—quasi-fish, somewhat man; it’s as if del Toro is updating or extending the original fable. Known for his dedication to pristine visual effects, del Toro took three years to perfect the design of his creature. Acted by longtime collaborator, Doug Jones, the creature is a tad grotesque, but, at the same time, endearing and, dare I say, beautiful. His iridescent scales and flesh shimmer with flashes of rich blues and yellows, which leads me to an important note: the colors in this film are the best I’ve seen in years. Stunning and vivid, they’re perhaps most noticeable when stripped away. Partway through the film, Elisa and the creature are caught up in a daydream that plays out in black and white. Adorned in a flowing white gown, she and the creature dance to the tune of a full classical orchestra. Echoes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies can be felt in this moment. The scene has such a timeless quality. It’s unorthodox—what with a dancing fish-man and all—but it’s so full of respect and admiration for old-time cinema, that it truly feels like it came from another era.

The film’s musical score is an instant classic. There’s such a strong French influence on the music that it’s easy to forget the film is set in America. The French composer Alexandre Desplat won an Oscar for his work on the film. In fact, The Shape of Water was the most nominated film at the Academy Awards this year, with a whoopping seven nominations, and came home with three wins—best picture, best director, and best production design. Along with the film being a favorite among voters and critics this year, it was a personal favorite of mine. It renewed my faith in movies, reminding me of their magic and of what they can achieve where other art forms fall short. When story, imagery, acting, and sound are so flawlessly married, true wonders occur before our eyes.

The Shape of Water is a metaphor for love and beauty in life. Love and beauty can take many shapes and forms. They’re pliable and quenching, they give us life, and when we are swept up in them, we float weightlessly. Through a unique band of outcasts—of strangers in a strange land, we see ourselves reflected back. Every character seems to be longing for something more in life, unable to find their place (until some of them do). This film is a fairytale for troubled times, and the love and beauty found within it suggests an antidote.

Tom Yoannidis’s critical review “Love and Beauty are the Shape of Water” & his script Summerlong won first prize in the Sixth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Contest. Tom’s short story “Suicide House” won second prize in the Fifth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest, and his script “Runaway” also won second prize in the Fifth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. He has written reviews for The Match Factory on Safe (directed by Todd Haynes in 1995), Mulholland Drive (directed by David Lynch in 2001) and Paris, Texas (directed by Wim Wenders in 1984). Tom was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1990. Raised by a wild/artistic mother (model/private pilot/photographer) and an adventurous father (commercial pilot), he moved to New York on a whim in 2012 to study acting, and graduated from the Maggie Flanigan Studio in late 2014. He then moved to Toronto to work as an art director/art director’s assistant on TV commercials before returning to study Film at SVA. Tom is a hopeful director/writer in the making and an impulsive watcher of 70s cinema.

Judges Billy Altman & Regina Weinreich had this to say about Yoannidis’s prize-winning entry: “‘Love and Beauty are the Shape of Water’ neatly displays one of the basic tenets of good criticism: an informed opinion. The author communicates an understanding of the overall subject matter, as well as his own personal response to the work at hand, and does so in a confident, relaxed style. The essay is well-written, sophisticated, and expresses enthusiasm for both the subject and writing itself.”