Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: THE MIDNIGHT SWIM (2014)

Sarah Adina Smith's debut feature THE MIDNIGHT SWIM is one of the most elegantly haunting films of the year. Following the death of their mother Amelia (Beth Grant), The Brooks sisters — Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), June (Lindsay Burdge) and Isa (Aleksa Palladino) — return to their childhood home on the lake. Secluded and cut off from civilization, it bares itself as the classic archetype of any horror franchise - a cabin in the woods. But it's this locale that forces the sisters and the audience to try and make sense of this unexplainable tragedy. The circumstances around their mother's death are peculiar, considering she was a water conservationist who dived into Spirit Lake but never resurfaced.

As the sisters decide what to do with the property and reminisce about the times they spent with their mother, June records the entire visit on her camera, documenting the experience just as you would any family gathering. This is our window into the grief, pain, and mystery of THE MIDNIGHT SWIM. The cinematography feels less like a documentary, but more as if we are voyeurs peering into the intimate details of this family's life. It toys with the idea of found footage, but does so in a sense of videotaping any family get-together, this one just being a bit more bleak than most. Things move in and out of frame, with focus and blur, and it mimics our attempts to understand the world we've stepped into. The audience is not meant to understand the pain of this sudden and tragic death, but is meant to try and understand the strange occurrences that soon plague the sisters and their mother's house since their arrival.

We not only empathize with the pain of their loss, but nurture their curiosity to discover the truth what happened to their mother. The cinematography sets a pacing to the narrative that quickly exposes the painful truths of the sisters' relationship with their mother, and each other. It's handheld; bumpy and organic, it's real flesh and blood left to discover the reasons of death and purpose in life. The setting begs to be documented in this manner as well, like a nature documentary looking to shine a light on the secrets hidden under the rocks, creeping us out with whatever crawls out. Unconvinced that their mother died by accident, the sisters playfully attempt to invoke the spirits of "The Seven Sisters," a local legend based on several tragic drownings in the lake. This legend also has a connection to a constellation given the same name for The Pleiades of Greek mythology. The sisters soon discover that their mother had some sort of connection to this mythos as well. The most interesting elements of the story surround the fractured relationships between the sisters and how the loss of their mother can bring them together, but can push them apart even further than before. At times endearing, the sisters long to connect to the simpler times of their youth when the world made more sense; but now, with the pain of death and loss, it's difficult to leave things unsaid.

Dead birds begin appearing each morning, a shawl found in the lake begins to act as a character on its own, and mysterious footage of the lake begins to appear on June's camera. It's difficult to distinguish if these events are otherworldly, or just a dangerously unhealthy coping mechanism from one of the three sisters. Despite the supernatural elements littered throughout the film, it's difficult not be struck by how familiar it all feels. Our three sisters are established first and foremost by their personalities; as their appearances, speaking patterns, and physical mannerisms are somewhat identical. There is one moment in particular where the sisters seem to be truly bonding for the first time on this trip that quickly takes a sharp left into a heartbreaking moment of sorrow. This moment is gut-wrenching not because it is throwing the audience into a world of fictional horror, but instead forcing us to connect with the painful truths of reality. Sarah Adina Smith has showcased immense talent with THE MIDNIGHT SWIM and has offered a completely unique style of presenting cinematic psychodrama. Her etherial and mesmerizing debut is not to be missed, and will likely stay with viewers long after the credits have rolled.

THE MIDNIGHT SWIM arrives in cinemas and on VOD June 26th from Candy Factory Films.

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