After their mother’s death from drowning in the lake near her home, sisters Annie, Isa, and June, who comes with camera in hand, reunite to mourn their lost. During their stay, bizarre things begin to happen — birds around the property are dying and June’s camera frequently captures images of the lake when no one is operating it. They begin to speculate whether or not the occurrences come from the legends surrounding the mysterious lake, or if it’s something from their past that’s come creeping back into their lives.
A review for Sarah Adina Smith’s transcendental drama, “The Midnight Swim”, has been long overdue from us. We were fortunate enough to be granted a screener back in the winter of last year where “The Midnight Swim” became an honorable mention for our Best of the Year list — it was so very close to making the list, and I’ll get into why it didn’t in the review. Unfortunately things stalled for Film Bizarro shortly after the new year, review wise, but time has a way of working itself out. And perhaps a review is more fitting now than before with the movie having found distribution through Candy Factory Films and is now available for everyone.
Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino), and June (Lindsay Burdge)— who decides to film and document their time together — are three sisters who return home for the first time in years after their mother disappears while scuba diving in the mysterious lake she was obsessed over. While goofing around, Annie and Isa decide to evoke the 7th Sister — the local legend and restless spirit who is believed to drag people down to the bottom of the lake. While it seemed like a harmless game at first, bizarre things start to happen after; strange noises are heard throughout the house, birds turn up dead on their porch, and June’s camera begins taping the lake on its own. The supernatural occurrences take their toll on the three sisters, and soon the problems of their past begin to seep back into their lives.
What had originally caught my attention with “The Midnight Swim” was that with the initial trailer I had watched, the characters and concept, in someways, reminded me of Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers”. It’s what eventually pushed me into seeking out the film, and after having seen it, I could still draw some parallels between the two movies. That would be in disservice to the movie though, and Smith as well, since I found what she has created to be a unique psychodrama that is richly complex.
It’s a movie where there are a number of different elements at work, and it’s shocking how well they blend together. From the existentialism to the supernatural horror-esque atmosphere, Smith found an interesting and captivating way to explore the emotionally fractured relationship between three sisters and their mother. It’s heartbreaking, yet fascinating. Her decision to shoot the movie in a mock-documentary style from the perspective of the young sister, June, was quite a bold choice since it could have easily worked against the movie. Even though typically those kind of movies have outlandish plots, it's easy for them to lose the audience if it goes too far and is unable to keep the viewer invested. With "The Midnight Swim" being filmed from the perspective of June, the movie maintains a consistant connection between the audience and the characters because of the style and because of the emotional depth.
In my first viewing of “The Midnight Swim”, for some reason I felt as though more time should have been spent with the three siblings. Returning to the movie, however, I realized it was unnecessary. The audience is somewhat dropped into the middle of the story, but so much is told through the characters interactions with one another and their emotional reactions of returning home after their mother had passed. Forced expository dialogue isn't relied on and the movie doesn't stop moving in order to fill in the gaps. More things are said through the silence, through the teary eyes of the characters and it's in those moments where we find out all we need to know about these women. While the movie is encompassed in a ethereal and almost horror-like atmosphere, at its core, it is about these three women having to come to terms with a tragedy. The emotional punch is derived from the deeply intimate relationship they have from being sisters, which is able to bring them together in attempt to find comfort, yet it’s the same thing that pushes them apart.
Somehow though, through the emotional story, Smith weaves in psychological, metaphysical, and spiritual themes with even a pinch folklore too, and none of it ever feels out of place. The story of the sisters is strong enough to carry the movie on its own— partially thanks to the writing, but also because of amazing performances by the actors — but there is a stark-fairytale quality to the movie that gives it a distinctive personality. Because of the particular tone it has, there is almost a separation from reality where it can feel as though you’re not simply seeing the world through the lens of June’s camera, but through her eyes (or mind, rather) as well.
Even though “The Midnight Swim” technically qualifies as a found-footage/mockumentary movie, it doesn’t suffer from the usual faults those movies have. Nothing’s lost when a moment doesn’t feel real, partly because the emotion is what keeps the audience connected to the characters, which remains consistant, and because there is something more to what we are seeing. The film challenges its own themes and asks question: What is it? There’s an eventual development of a mental-illness dynamic that's interjected into the story, but again, it doesn’t feel out of place or forced. Instead it drives the mystery and the tension — is there in fact something supernatural about the lake or is the pain from the past causing things to become unraveled.
The downside in regards to this aspect of the movie is that this is where it sort of lost me and what kept me from adding “The Midnight Swim” to the list of the best movies of last year. Not so much the supernatural and mental-illness elements in the story, but rather what it is that movie is eluding to. “The Midnight Swim” isn’t exactly subtle about the metaphors at play — in imagery and context — but it never felt heavy-handed either. It rides down the line up until the ending where a definitive answer seemed to be given. In some ways it undoes parts of what the movie had been building up to. Where as, if it had remained ambiguous, it could have been more satisfying if I had been left to drawn my own conclusions.
I certainly can’t and won’t go so far as to say the ending ruined the movie because “The Midnight Swim” is a movie where its value comes from everyone’s own personal viewing experience. For me, while the ending kept the movie from being something great, for the next person, it could be what makes it for them.
With that being said, even with my issue regarding the ending, I couldn’t help but be amazed by Sarah Adina Smith’s “The Midnight Swim”. It’s an engrossing movie with an entrancing atmosphere the comes from its distinct combination of horror and sorrow. With a complex but well crafted script about the intense relationship between three sisters that’s encapsulated in spiritual and existential themes. The emotional weight of the story that allows the audience to maintain a connection with the characters makes “The Midnight Swim” absolutely worth seeing.