Oh glorious day! My cinematic wish came true! Director Roland Emmerich was put on trial for crimes again humanity? No dear reader – but that would brighten even the gloomiest of days. A film director said she loved me…IN THE THEATER! Now naturally this is a bit of hyperbole on my part as her exclamation of flirtation was only in response to me praising her film – BUT STILL! SHE SAID IT!
I don’t qualify my fantasies with layers of realism, and you my beloved reader shouldn’t either. My only regret is not introducing myself in person but instead slinking away like the spineless critic that I am. To remedy my craven introversion, let me just say this: Sarah Adina Smith, I loved your film The Midnight Swim, and would be honored to take you to dinner the next time you’re in Austin. (Please don’t base your decision on our Twitter picture, we all went through a phase at the Drive-in Zeppelin)
So fair warning my Lieblings – if this review sounds at all like a love letter to Ms. Smith, it’s because it partially is. Not in that weird ‘faceless movie critic becomes infatuated with a pretty girl he saw at the movies’ sort of way. It’s just director Smith is a woman after my own heart and one who clearly just ‘gets’ movies.
Despite Midnight Swim being her first feature film, Smith grasps the importance of storytelling by crafting a haunting exploration of mental illness and raw familial interaction. Her characters are rich with emotional baggage, and the only thing that will likely cut through the film’s thick tension is Ms. Smith’s wit.
So throw out all that Paranormal Activity crap dear reader, because this is the supernatural psychodrama you aren’t going to want to miss.
When stepsisters June, Annie, and Isa (played by Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, and Aleksa Palladino respectively) return to their recently deceased mother’s home, they enter a world fraught with mystery and spirituality.
Their mother Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) – despite being a seasoned scuba diver – has vanished from the nearby Spirit Lake during a dive. Since Amelia was so impassionate about her watery neighbor (her house was on the lake), the sisters soon suspect otherworldly meddling in line with a local urban legend. In the tale, seven sisters drowned in Spirit Lake whilst trying to save one another, and it is believed that the 7th sister will pull you down to a watery grave given the opportunity.
While the overarching mystery rests with their mother Amelia’s uncharacteristic disappearance, the most interesting story arc concerns the idiosyncratic June and her role as the de facto storyteller. We see very little of her early on as the film is shot entirely via her handheld camera. Through peripheral dialogue and the increasingly frequent self-shots, we see June evolve from merely the ‘odd’ sister into the unreliable narrator that steadily builds the story’s tension.
The legend of the drowned sisters, coupled with the hippy-dippy spirituality of Isa ultimately drives June to an obsession with the lake. Her midnight strolls to the dock have all the hallmarks of a David Lynch film, and it becomes increasingly unsettling to be left alone when she goes for her titular swim. This movie is tense and emotional, and whether Sarah Adina Smith embraces it or not, the young director has great potential for becoming a master of horror.
It’s a film of subtleties, but more importantly one of refined vision. It’s impressive to me that – despite being centered on the organics of a handheld camera – the storytelling can be so methodical and targeted. Smith is careful never to dive too deeply into her characters’ backstories or drown the audience in exposition, but she still manages to nail the whole ‘do a lot with a little’ style of filmmaking.
It’s a smart, occasionally funny, and overall it’s a film I found to be truly inventive and diverse in its camerawork. Despite being a lower budget film, I would say Midnight Swim is leagues beyond its brethren in both style and genuine creepiness. It isn’t enough to say it ‘does the found-footage genre right,’ because – at its heart – this isn’t a true found-footage movie.
June’s camera is almost an extension of self, and the paranoid POV style that develops later on in the film captivates an already frightened audience. I have never tried to hide my disdain for the handheld gimmick plaguing the horror genre in the past. However, I can say with some assurance that this film completely reinvents what it means to tell a story from the first person, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
If I’m trying to conjure up the 7th sister of negativity from my bottomless lake of cynicism, I would remark that there were a few underdeveloped segments. However, based on the director’s after-screening Q&A, I am less prone to acknowledge fault as all my complaints more or less fall under the ‘that’s not what the film is about’ category. Yeah – shut the hell up Airman Xley! Just praise the movie and be done with it! Quiet you! I’m the one writing this review.
At any rate, this is probably a good time to thank my friends over at Other Worlds Austin for screening The Midnight Swim as a part of their year-round sci-fi series. I’m not sure I agree with their genre label for this film, but I appreciate them screening it nonetheless. Because it’s not really sci-fi is it?
Horror I can see, but there was little if anything I saw to qualify this as science fiction. I get the whole reincarnation angle and thoroughly enjoyed the tie into astronomy and the Pleiades, but ghost stories just strike a kind of horror chord with me. (Ms. Smith if you’re reading this I would be flattered to have a polite argument over coffee sometime).
The Bottom Line:
All in all though, I am not the least bit disappointed in Bears Fonte and crew deciding to screen this hidden gem. The acting was spotless, the narrative was diverse and engaging, and it was exactly what I needed after this blockbuster drought that has caused me so much anguish. You’ll be immersed in the storytelling through the impeccable sound editing, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed with the camera work.
Pay close attention to the scene where the sisters dress up and perform imitations of their recently deceased mother. This might be one of the best ‘look into the camera’ style scenes you will see for a while. Talk about an emotional 180. In a matter of seconds, you go from shared elation to soul crushing unease.