Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 23, 2015 10:04 am 
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Sisters by the lake and mom's gone and drowned, maybe

The only trouble for the general audience with Smith's small budget but well-made feature film debut The Midnight Swim is that it doesn't fit exactly in any category -- just what will make it appeal to a small audience of devotees. It flirts with the supernatural from the start, and drops in more spooky details as it moves along, ending in a revelation that's both astonishing and incomprehensible. But though it's unnerving (perhaps also a little tiresome), it never enters full-on horror territory. Something strange there is.

Three sisters, who indeed do seem very much alike if not a little too close in age, have gathered at a lakeside house some time after the death of their mother. They've been semi-estranged and are reuniting, and also thinking about what to do with the property. Spirit Lake, as it's called, has a legendary quality, no diver having found its bottom. And there's a story of seven sisters a century ago who dived into the lake, each one to save the one before, all disappearing. Mom, Amelia (Beth Grant) is presumed to have drowned in Spirit Lake though her body was not found. She was an ecological researcher and activist to protect the lake who often scuba-dived there.

The sisters are the hippieish Isa (Aleksa Palladino), who'd like to turn the place into a commune/art center; the practical Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), prepared to set mom's affairs in order, and the withdrawn June (Lindsay Burdge), the yountest, who's had mental problems, and stays at arm's length part of the time by videoing everything. Isa flirts with the only man around, divorced dad Josh (Ross Partridge), a childhood friend who's stayed in the area. A drunken evening leads to trying to call up the spirits of the seven sisters. No luck, but a habit of nightly visits to the lake begins.

And we, the viewers, are quietly drawn in. The house, the cinematography, and the women are attractive. The conversation is relaxed and low-key. The sisters get giggly at the oddest times, but then, this is an odd time for them all. It's as if we've casually dropped in on them. Smith never delves into their backstories, except for a couple of brief hints. Things go from day to day. If this is Mumblecore, it's of a posher and suaver kind than of yore. And meanwhile the movie slips in a bizarre sequence of the three women, out of the blue, performing a lip-sync music-video of the Seventies empowerment song, "Free to Be You and Me." Who made this? And speaking of videoing, June's persistence at it begins to grate on the others, though from what we see, it's at least smoothly done. As usual, the verisimilitude stumbles if you consider the overlapping sound and the elaborate editing in evidence.

But the convention works to produce a sense of unease, precisely because of the feeling that there's somebody else filming besides June. Which of course there is. But is this inconsistency intentional or just clumsiness? Anyway one of the intentionally creepy things is that time lapse night shots of the pier turn up on June's camera that she absolutely insists she hasn't shot.

And dead birds have been appearing almost nightly on the porch; it's become a disquieting routine, and arguments that it's a coincidence won't wash. Talk of the seven sisters turns to those of Greek myth and the constellation named after them, the Pleiades. What of the sisters' reason for being here? Will mom, perhaps, come back? Or is this is just a very peculiar family reunion, and none of this means anything? One can't finally say.

Smith has produced a rather suave anomaly of a movie not quite like anything else but with hints of everything from Blair Witch Project to David Lynch. Or other unclassifiable films. For some reason The Midnight Swim made me think of Craig Zobel's offbeat, supernatural, sci-fi indie film, Compliance, likewise tiny indie and heavily improvised and on the edge between genres; and Shane Carruth's almost legendarily puzzling and smart time-travel no-budget indie, Primer. Primer fascinated me, and Carruth's (now already forgotten?) second feature was gorgeous, but Compliance didn't work for me as it did for some. As could be said of The Midnight Swim. But it deserves some respect, and has won some prizes at appropriate festivals. As Geoff Berkshire puts it his Variety review, though this film "doesn't wholly satisfy as narrative," it still represents "a technically polished calling card for its young filmmaker." There are a lot of calling cards these days. We'll see whether this one leads anywhere.

The Midnight Swim, 88 mins., debuted at Fantasia July 2014, also was at AFI and other festivals in Sweden, the Netherlands, and the US, and won four awards. Distributed by Candy Factory Films, it comes to theaters and Video on Demand 26 June 2015.

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