'The Midnight Swim': Fantasia Review

Courtesy of Traction Media
Character quirks prevail over dramatic suspense

Three sisters try to come to terms with their mother’s unexpected death in Sarah Adina Smith’s debut feature

A melancholy melodrama masquerading as a family mystery, The Midnight Swim’s concerted effort to avoid easy genre classification may appear admirable, but also consigns the film to an awkward ambiguity.  Festivals play should afford further visibility, but commercial opportunities will likely be limited primarily to digital formats.

Somewhat estranged half-sisters Isa (Aleksa Palladino), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) and June (Lindsay Burdge) are brought back together by the disappearance and apparent death of their mother Amelia (Beth Grant), an ecological researcher and activist who vanished on one of her frequent scuba diving outings in Spirit Lake. The bittersweet reunion at their childhood lakeside home is captured on-camera by youngest sister June, who is supposedly shooting a documentary, although it eventually becomes clear that she lacks any clear purpose aside from a rather obsessive impulse to record events in her life.

Now in their 20s and 30s, the women gradually readjust to their familial dynamics, with oldest sister Annie attempting to take charge of settling Amelia’s affairs as free-spirited Isa gets distracted by a flirtation with local divorced dad Josh (Ross Partridge) and taciturn June’s insistent videography begins to wear on everyone’s nerves. They’re intrigued, however, by Josh’s retelling of the local lore surrounding the lake: an account of seven sisters who all drowned decades ago while attempting to save one another on a nighttime swim.

Although their late-night drunken invocation to reawaken the spirit of the seventh drowned sister proves uneventful, strange developments ensue soon afterwards, as dead birds begin turning up on their front doorstep, strange melodies haunt their dreams and a growing sense of unease besets each of them. They discuss their mother’s preoccupation with reincarnation and soul migration, wondering if her disappearance in the lake might be something other than a tragic drowning.

Writer-director Sarah Adina Smith has fashioned her film into an almost exclusively feminine domain that’s dominated by emotion and memory. Suppressing opportunities to introduce conventional genre elements, she instead emphasizes the relationships between the sisters and their own connections with their mother by relating family history and retelling familiar stories in a naturalistic style that’s subverted by increasing tensions among the siblings.

The three actresses display a realistic camaraderie, but their characters are insufficiently actualized to achieve adequate differentiation. In the central role, Burdge has the fewest lines, but her frequently thoughtful or troubled facial expressions don’t convey much beyond June’s generalized anxiety.

Her troubling dreams about standing on the moonlit lakeside dock outside the house under the constellation Pleiades (representing seven mythical sisters transformed into stars) aren’t particularly revealing either, especially since the scenes’ CGI effects are almost as awkwardly integrated into the plot as the entirely unexpected, impromptu musical number the women perform partway through the film. Equally distracting sequences and editing (also by Smith) inadvertently reveal that June isn’t the only camera operator shooting what’s supposedly an entirely solo project. The indifferent Iowa locale and lack of varied settings do nothing to improve on the inconsistent technique.

Venue: Fantasia International Film Festival

Production company: Friend of a Friend

Cast: Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino, Ross Partridge, Beth Grant

Director-writer: Sarah Adina Smith
Producer: Jonako Donley

Executive producers: Jennifer Wilson, Samuel T. Bauer, Steve Pearson

Director of photography: Shaheen Seth

Costume designer: Tiffany White

Editor: Sarah Adina Smith

No rating, 88 minutes