THE MIDNIGHT SWIM Review: Choppy Waters
I’ve always been fascinated by horror-themed urban legends. Although the details change from retelling to retelling (and surely each varies greatly from its original incarnation), the core sense of fear is always present, whether borne from the ramifications of saying “Bloody Mary” in a mirror three times, the terror of an impending impalement by a man with a hook for a hand, or the panic of learning the mysterious call is coming from inside the house.
A horror-themed urban legend is not necessarily at the heart of The Midnight Swim, but it is certainly present throughout this weighty and mysterious drama from first-time director Sarah Adina Smith.
Dr. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) was an experienced diver, but after one particular dive in Spirit Lake, she was never seen nor heard from again. Her three adult daughters reunite and return home to get their mother’s affairs in order. Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) is the practical daughter and the alpha-female of the trio; Isa (Aleksa Palladino) is the free spirit who reads palms and believes in reincarnation; June (Lindsay Burdge) is the introvert. In fact, June is more than introverted; she is socially averse to the point that she won’t even eat a meal with her own sisters. She is also an amateur documentarian filming the entire event.
On their first night back home, the sisters (along with local childhood friend Josh, played by Ross Partridge) recall the ghost story of The Seven Sisters. In short, seven sisters drowned in Spirit Lake but the seventh’s body was never found; at midnight, the seventh sister’s spirit can be summoned. At midnight that first night, the sisters attempt to summon the seventh sister’s spirit and … nothing.
Or was it? Mysterious things start to happen as the trio works to settle their mother’s estate and come to terms with the woman she was and the women they are.
On the surface, The Midnight Swim, which Smith also wrote, is a by-the-numbers drama about estranged sisters coming to terms with the loss of their mother and attempting to manage their own fractured relationships in the process. It contains all the standard moments you would expect to see, including the old bit with the high school stud who still lives back home, is divorced from his high school sweetheart wife, and gets involved with one of the protagonists. And it has one of those scenes where the sisters bond while lip-synching a song. Sure, the structure is tired, but the mysterious elements (more on that later) help it along, Smith never lets the film get sucked into melodrama (although at times you should check for a pulse), and the chemistry of the three actresses is an unstoppable force.
There is also the mystery of the missing mother. Little time is spent on the forensics of it, but it’s the catalyst for the reunion, so it’s duly addressed, with the most interesting part being a visit to their mother’s old lab.
Beneath the surface, though, the film is something of a metaphysical mystery. Fueling that is the Seven Sisters story, which is actually two stories: one, the legend that took place at the lake; the other, a reference to the Pleiades of Greek mythology. (It seems the former may have been inspired by the latter.) I use the term “metaphysical” because even though the Seven Sisters tale has certain key elements, calling the present-day mystery one of “horror” isn’t quite right, although the film wants to dabble in that at times. There are plenty of mysterious goings-on in the wake of the attempt to summon the spirit of the seventh sister.
There is a lot going on in the creepier parts of the film, and this is where the film is its most interesting yet its most confounding. Smith has a lot of good ideas – everything from a haunting song stuck in the sisters’ heads, to mysterious footage on June’s camera, to a local old townswoman who knows the history of the Seven Sisters, and much more. Smith just doesn’t develop enough of any of these to carry the suspense needed to get the film to the next unsettling level. It’s almost as if she is afraid to fully commit to the supernatural aspects of the story; hers is a suggestive spookiness that never has you squinting for fear of what might be lurking around the next corner.
Even the technical execution is a blessing and a curse. Smith’s cinematographer, Shaheen Seth, has some serious game. So much of this film looks so good. That said, the documentary-style approach grows tired so quickly. There is a lot of looking into and playing for the camera, and while that might be what “regular” people do when a camera is in their faces 24/7, it’s a major distraction here.
The film’s resolution leaves something to be desired as well. It’s tidy, but it doesn’t feel earned.
With The Midnight Swim, Sarah Adina Smith makes a formidable first impression, but with so much happening you get the sense she used her directorial debut to swing for the fences lest she not get another chance to bat. Still, it is undeniably hypnotic, leaving plenty to ponder, both visually and thematically, and I suspect a second viewing might offer a different experience – one full of little clues that may have been missed the first time. Regardless, Smith is a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and one who deserves another film.