United States. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, 2014. Starring Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino. 84 minutes.
Filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith takes a look at the complex family relationships between women in her feature-length début. Dr. Amelia Brooks disappears during a dive in the lake she lives near, the lake she spent much of her adult life studying and defending. Her body never found, she is presumed dead. Her daughters June (Lindsay Burdge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino, co-star of Boardwalk Empire and Halt and Catch Fire and singer of the indie-rock band Exitmusic), estranged from their mother and each other, return home to put her affairs in order, but each finds the environment–the town, the house, the memories, and of course, the lake itself–pulling at them in different ways. Especially June, who has her own obsession with the lake that claimed her mother’s life.
The Midnight Swim strikes me, first and foremost, as a somewhat existential character study, examining how women relate to each other as family members (half-sisters, in this case); a sort of female version of The Corridor, without the cosmic/Lovecraftian implications. The relationships take center stage and the film’s strongest, most memorable moments–June singing her mother’s favorite lullaby, leading into a re-enactment of a verbally abusive rant, for example, or a Spontaneous Stupid Dance set to “Free to Be…You and Me”–focus on the dynamic between the sisters and Amelia (the latter only ever seen on video, in the form of a “Save the Lake” political ad).
Smith’s script puts an emphasis on showing over telling, and she implies many of the characters’ defining traits instead of stating them outright (for example, brief comments Isa makes when discussing her sudden hook-up with June’s childhood crush suggests a history of bad, probably abusive, men). This generally works to the film’s advantage (except for one major semi-revelation toward the end of the film that really needed to come earlier). The performances are uniformly excellent, with Burdge, Lafleur, and Palladino having an easy chemistry with each other, and with Ross Partridge as the aforementioned crush.
However, while I wouldn’t call Midnight Swim an overt horror film, it does include elements that can only be described as supernatural, and much of film’s overall effect is, if not actually nightmarish, then dreamlike in an unsettling way. Unfortunately, while I appreciated some of these elements (the cinematography of several night scenes; Ellen Reid’s superb, discomfiting ambient score), I didn’t think they worked as well in the overall context of the film. Occasionally, Smith simply seems to be trying too hard to be strange or obscure. The best example is the final sequence, which, beautiful though it is, seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the movie.
Doing the film no favors is the film’s narrative structure, which, I must state with a heavy sigh, bases itself around a found-footage conceit. (June’s making a documentary, and her sisters seem content to let her record everything that goes on around her, except for the one token “turn the camera off” scene.) The format doesn’t add anything of value to the film, creates a level of disconnect between the characters and the audience (I very rarely see people holding video cameras in real life, so why is every third horror or indie film I watch about people who apparently have the damned things surgically grafted to their palms?) and makes the film’s c0founding final moments even less credible.
That all being said, when The Midnight Swim works it really works. I think I would have liked it better if it had jettisoned the weirder elements and was only about the family, but hey, that’s life.