'Swim Little Fish Swim': Film Review

Courtesy of Under the Milky Way
Fine performances and well-observed characterizations enliven this low-key indie drama

A New York City married couple's already tenuous relationship is threatened by the unexpected arrival of an aspiring young artist

The struggle for New York City’s soul — between artistic bohemianism and unfettered capitalism — is the thematic subtext of Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar’s Swim Little Fish Swim. Depicting the emotional tension that develops in a marriage after the arrival of an unexpected houseguest, this low-key indie drama has enough well-observed, insightful moments to compensate for its occasional lapses into forced quirkiness.

The three central characters are Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa), an almost proudly unemployed composer-musician; his wife, Mary (Brooke Bloom), who works long hours as a nurse to support the household; and Lilas (Bessis), a 19-year-old French video artist who, thanks to the invitation of a mutual friend, winds up crashing on their couch, much to Mary’s barely concealed annoyance.

Lilas is trying to make it in New York, but her visa is due to expire in 10 days unless she can prove that she’s actually professionally employed as an artist. Complicating her quest is the disapproval of her mother, Francoise (veteran French actress Anne Consigny), a world-famous artist preparing for her own upcoming show at the Museum of Modern Art.

Lilas’ presence in the cramped walk-up Chinatown apartment only exacerbates the conflict between Leeward and Mary, who are so at odds that she calls their four-year-old daughter (Olivia Durling Costello) Maggie while he prefers the more whimsical Rainbow. Desperate to buy a house in Jersey City, Mary pressures her spouse to accept a lucrative gig composing a jingle for a television commercial, but he stubbornly refuses to compromise his artistic integrity.

At once predictable (Leeward sits around with his hipster friends bemoaning the evils of capitalism, and actually strums a ukulele) and refreshingly free of cliches (despite obvious sexual tension, he and Lilas don’t begin an affair), the film is notable for its refusal to glamorize artistic yearnings. Indeed, the most sympathetic character is the no-nonsense Mary, superbly played by Bloom, who, rather than coming off as the bitter suppressor of her husband’s dreams, seems the sole voice of reason.

Defa admirably doesn’t play cute and cuddly, conveying his character’s self-absorption while still managing to make him sympathetic. And the beautiful, gamine-like Bessis has a natural screen presence that should ensure future work in romantic comedies should she desire it.

Production company: Les Films de la Fusee
Cast: Dustin Guy Defa, Lola Bessis, Brooke Bloom, Olivia Durling Costello, Anne Consigny
Directors-screenwriters: Lola Bessis, Ruben Amar
Executive producers: Lola Bessis, Ruben Amar
Director of photography: Brett Jutkiewicz

Production designers: Yvette Granata, Audrey Bensoussan
Editor: Thomas Marchand

No MPAA rating, 95 minutes