Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here.
Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) is gone. Presumed dead, the accomplished swimmer went missing on a dive in the very lake she had been campaigning to preserve in her final years. Her three adult daughters arrive at their childhood home near the water to reminisce, console each other and make plans for their mother’s belongings, but their time together soon takes an unsettling turn.
Dead birds begin appearing on their doorstep, an incident with a camera suggests a possible intruder and the local legend of Spirit Lake — a lake that reportedly has yet to reveal its bottom — begins to fill their imagination. Long ago seven sisters walked the water’s shore only to drown, one by one, and like the Pleiades of Greek mythology they’ve come to symbolize a sad state of grace that’s eternally out of reach. Are the legendary sisters reaching out for fresh blood? Has their mother returned from her watery grave? Or is something all together different haunting their waking hours?
The Midnight Swim creates an ethereal state of unease in its atmosphere and characters, but more than just an unsettling thriller the film captures a sisterly slice of life with an effective ease. If only the film’s unnecessary insistence on a found footage-ish format wasn’t so damn distracting.
Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) is the oldest and arguably wisest of the sisters, but she’s spent the last few years at an emotional disconnect with their mother. Isa (Aleksa Palladino) meanwhile is a slinky free-spirited woman who shared many of Amelia’s more spiritual beliefs on the lake and reincarnation. Finally, June (Lindsay Burdge) is the youngest, and while some undisclosed past event has left her fragile she’s on the road to recovery and is in a far better place now.
June is also filming the trip — the movie consists entirely of footage from her camera — and it’s a misstep that ends up being far more haunting than anything happening in the actual narrative.
Audio carries over between scenes, the camera turns toward people before they speak, there are POV cuts mid-conversation while the audio continues uninterrupted, the focus stays on characters for reactions instead of instinctively turning toward the “action” like a real person with a camera would… it’s essentially edited and crafted like a traditionally shot film which makes the insistence on the found footage-ish format both unnecessary and unfortunate. Aside from a brief mystery that arises when an unknown “someone” films a time-lapse video of the lake there’s no purpose to the film being shot and presented in this way. It adds nothing to the story and instead detracts and distracts from everything else that works so damn well.
The strengths of writer/director Sarah Adina Smith‘s feature are legion, but first and foremost is the magic it captures between the onscreen siblings. Not only do Lafleur, Palladino and Burdge share some physical resemblance but they also share mannerisms and personas. They’re each distinct characters, but watching them interact together is to feel like a fly on the wall of an occasionally awkward family reunion. The joys and pains created and curated by the siblings rings true to anyone who has brothers or sisters.
The mystery of the film — was mom’s death an accident or suicide? who or what is responsible for the weird goings on? — risks falling into the shadow of the relationship drama, but it repeatedly returns to poke a vaguely shimmering hand into the mix reminding us that something more than long-gestating family squabbles is happening here. The fifth character, a local named Josh (Ross Partridge) who once upon a time was pursued by Annie but is now getting frisky with Isa, is both a purveyor of common sense and something of a question mark who adds to the mystery.
All the players are quite strong performance-wise with each of the sisters convincing in their character and interactions, but Burdge in many ways has the most difficult role. Often stuck off camera as no more than a voice her time onscreen becomes more valuable by its relative scarcity. Like many things, June’s past troubles are kept deliberately vague, but Burdge does a fantastic job of keeping herself present and visually conveying the idea of an unreliable narrator. We watch her in silence, hear her mild conversational fumblings and see her pretend to be a stranger on the phone first learning about Amelia’s death. She’s as much a mystery as the one possibly unfolding around them, and she just may be the answer to both as well.
The Midnight Swim is a moody and evocative affair more interested in atmosphere than answers — and that’s fine — but it’s difficult to maintain that tenor when the viewer is repeatedly pausing to wonder about the feasibility of someone with one camera capturing things someone with one camera clearly couldn’t. Lose the found footage-ish angle and this is a marvelous descent into myth and possible madness, but with it? That greatness is eternally out of reach.
The Upside: Very well acted; ethereal imagery; ending is intriguing; the sisters’ music video
The Downside: Found footage-ish format is a constant distraction; almost excessively vague
On the Side: Sarah Adina Smith was Titles Designer on the fantastic and sweet ’09 film Dear Lemon Lima.