THE MIDNIGHT SWIM is a first-person psychological mystery tinged with horror

midnight_swim_xlgRating: ★★★

Sarah Adina Smith’s directorial debut, The Midnight Swim, starts in much the same way as her last screen credit as co-writer, Goodbye World. In that film, a group of friends gathered at a log cabin for the end of the world, and while the reunion of three estranged sisters at the lake house where they grew up might not seem as cataclysmic, to these characters, losing a parent through an unexplained suicide would certainly feel like the end of the world.

Their water conservationist mother, Amelia (Beth Grant, in an all too brief appearance) has drowned in the lake despite being a strong swimmer, and though her body has gone, her daughters are less certain as to the whereabouts of her spirit. Left to contemplate reincarnationist teachings of their upbringing that none of them firmly believe but remain dutifully mindful of, either her spirit is now inhabiting another earthbound body, or her soul has learned all it can and is simultaneously re-living the experiences of all her past lives in the heavens.

As Annie (Jennifer LaFleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino) and June (Lindsay Burdge) start putting their mother’s real world financial affairs in order, the sisters soon find themselves sifting through their own emotional baggage. The oldest, Annie, plays mother to her siblings but has failed at motherhood in her own life, Isa is desperately seeking the stability and direction of a committed relationship, and fragile, introverted June is still recovering from a mental breakdown. The film’s pained, psych-session outpourings owe a debt to Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, though the feeling of being trapped in these girls’ heads comes not from an overpowering palate, but the first-person perspective of June’s camera, to which she’s permanently attached. Her supposedly therapeutic process of documentation is worryingly obsessive, enabling her to live outside her own life. With all the talk of reincarnation and urban legends surrounding the lake, there’s a sustained expectation that we might be witnessing the last of it; that what we’re watching is in fact “found footage” from police lock-up.

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This forced perspective is also selective, leaving us to piece together major off-screen events for which voyeuristic June has no viewpoint – an old friend from the neighborhood (Ross Partridge) is invited for dinner, but no real indication of his chemistry with Isa is given until June turns on her camera after spying them through a window, intimately entangled in a hammock. Piecing together what we can from what we see, much of the sister’s behavior is puzzling in spite of their obvious damage. None of them seem particularly affected by their recent bereavement, and instead of mourning, they dance to lip-synched songs and play games. One drunken night they conjure the seventh sister of the lake, who legend has it, drowned while trying to save the six sisters the lake claimed before her. Subsequent unexplainable goings on of dead birds on the porch and the appearance of time-lapse footage June didn’t take aren’t ominous enough occurrences on their own, and don’t ever really escalate enough to justify the sisters seeking out a local folklore expert, but the vérité mode in which this story is told is subtly suggestive of how little it takes to spook us in real life compared to the hardened heroines of horror movies.

That realism is what’s most disquieting about the film, Shaheen Seth’s naturalistic, sometimes candlelit lighting setting a warm, inviting, idyllic mood, sharply at odds with the shadows at the edge of frame. It’s not what’s happening to these women, but how we find them in that frame which unexpectedly chills. A recurring long shot of June outlined by the moonlight as she stares out from the end of the dock into the depths below is troublingly hypnotic, as if her mother is beckoning her from the beyond into the water. That’s not what we hear, but Ellen Reid’s sinister soundscape capably implies it. If Adina Smith relies on sound a little too much for twisted psychological shorthand, and the soundscape in itself is more than a little overbearing, it’s nevertheless, robustly dynamic.

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The way watery imagery is used to evoke slippery states of mind is strongly reminiscent of Altman’s 3 Women (I’m aware that only last month I said the same of another micro budget US indie, Intimate Semaphores), and that refracted connection is strongest in another indelible shot of June – this time a submerged self portrait of Lindsay Burdge dunking the camera and peering down through the water, ripples distorting her face. It’s not a face we see very often here (and after her implosive performance in A Teacher, we should be seeing it more in general), but the intensity of her eyes and the sullen stillness of her body has a shuddersome impact whenever she appears.

Like that self-portrait, the narrative is a little wishy-washy, alternating between underpowered and overpowered scenes, and once too often crossing the line between being purposely mysterious and questionably vague. Though bearing comparison to its high art influences on such a small budget – even having those aspirations in the first place – is both impressive and encouraging given the present mumbley, lo-fi landscape. That it never once dips its toes in the waters of pretension is a likely source of chief inspiration being decidedly low brow. As well as a title that neatly approximates the intrigue of Adina Smith’s film, the 1947 film noir, Lady in the Lake is a gripping Philip Marlowe mystery told entirely through the use of a subjective camera and The Midnight Swim proves just as unexpectedly enthralling.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on July 28, 2014

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