In Werner Herzog’s wonderful documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, he makes a point of showing that if you dive deep enough in those cold an antarctic waters, the experience not all that different than voyaging into outer space. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain also used microscope images of bacteria in petri dishes as the special effects foundation for creating a dying nebulae on screen. I am continually fascinated with inner space and microscopic scale being as infinite as the far stretching galaxies.
Director Sarah Adina Smith, with her first feature, plays with both these ideas, but she does so with character and sibling drama as the driver for in her delicate psychodrama, The Midnight Swim. Introverted and damaged twenty-something June Brooks, who over the course of the film makes a dive deep down into herself and identity, possibly going too far. The film suggests that our connection to others is our lifeline to our self – perhaps we should not, or even cannot swim alone.
At one point the June’s camera — the film is in essence is the documentary she is making of an uncomfortable reunion at the family cottage — captures her visage from under the depths of the water. She has placed the camera into the lake water, just below the surface, presumably to get a good shot of herself that is reflective of her tenuous grip on normalcy. She has a pertinent self-awareness of this fact as she and her half-sisters seem to each have their histories of flakey mental issues, although this might just be due to sisters being sisters. Gathering images of herself and her dysfunctional siblings is a coping mechanism for June’s extreme introversion.
Current duress stems from the reason for which they are back together on the lake after many years of long distance and estrangement. June, Isa and Annie, the three of them brought together by the death of their mother, full time resident of the cottage, and marine biology researcher. Mrs. Brooks was diving the lower fathoms of the portentously named Spirit Lake before mysteriously drowning.
Reconnecting to one other at this moment in time, their childhood nostalgia is now overlaid with adult pathologies. They halfheartedly plan local shopping outings, discuss the future sale or repurposing of the home into a artistic retreat, and with June’s video-editing acumen, they make a cute music video to reconnect with a passed time. The improv is full of girlish giggles and fun, but it devolves into some rather intense roleplaying, by the oldest sister. This scene, in its uncomfortable intimacy, is acutely unsettling. June and Isa are forced to bear witness to Annie, the most dependable of the three beginning to crack. It is equally awkward for us in the audience due to manner of June’s filming and framing of her sister’s breakdown.
The Midnight Swim may end up with the increasingly pejorative label of ‘Found Footage’ film, but it is really not that at all. It is more an empathic point of view achieved by having a character (who makes documentaries) shoot what she wants to keep of her personal situation. It is not gimmicky in the least; rather it is transcendent in purpose. And yet, a moment here or there where a character makes direct eye contact with the camera offer a different kind of spine tingle.
Ideas of spirituality and rebirth are always skimming the surface of The Midnight Swim. Stories to be told while underneath the stars late at night, and the local folklore of drowning sisters, and the ghosts of the lake, not the least of which the newest mystery, the unfound corpus of their recently departed mother, scientist and spiritualist (character actor Beth Grant in a brief bit of spot on casting). When dead birds start appearing on the doorstep of the cottage, and footage not filmed by June starts appearing on her camera, it feels like things might move towards what is expected of the creepy horror movie genre, but there is originality to spare here, and it keeps going off to new places while always returning to the water, the font and the womb.
The drama, the fruit de mer, is the casual immediacy of the relationships of the three leads (Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino), broken as siblings, and unable to find happiness or even a comfortably shared silence. This is always front and centre, while the so called ‘hippie bullshit’ is a backdrop, a shear curtain of mood.
The miracle of this movie is how the voices of the three actresses act as a kind of hypnosis, in their conversations and passive bickering. It is easy to fall under the spell of this rhythm. You feel privy to an intimacy that is rare in American genre cinema. When there is anxiety it easily spills over and out of the film, in a way that reminded me of Sebastián Silva’s criminally under-seen hysterical woman horror Magic Magic from last year. And like Christopher Doyle’s exquisite cinematography in that film, Smith’s husband, cinematographer Shaheen Seth achieves here a naturalist beauty of the Iowa cottage country, all tinkly motes on the lake, along with a tactile immediacy; a rich shawl fabric, flapping in the wind, revealing and hiding the face of a traveller. The equally minimalist soundtrack lets the images (and the audience) do the work, but with this talented young director as a reliable guide (an achievement considering that this is Smith’s first feature) said work feels effortless in its rewards.
Simultaneously narcissistic and voyeuristic, one gets the feeling that June’s sisters have indulged her filming for years and years of even their most intimate moments, Smith allows us to gradually ease into June’s POV by showing how outsiders of this insular little family react to having the camera on them. A childhood boyfriend of Isa comes over for dinner to reconnect and is a bit weirded out that June would rather film them enjoy each other’s company than eat with them, where Isa’s reaction is telling that this is simply their normal. Another sequence involving a real estate agent visiting over tea to list the cottage on the market is both funny and honest in how people behave when trying to do their work while being filmed against their will. Scenes like this serve as effective lubricant to ease the audience into the headspace of the film.
A recurring image of June standing motionless in silhouette on the dock, illuminated in purple hues by the stars of The Pleiades (The Seven Sisters) which seem to get brighter with each repeat of the image. June gets darker, on the verge of becoming a traveller in the wide space of her own identity. Possibly, somewhere out there, Herzog is whispering a gentle voice-over, so we do not have to swim alone in a senseless universe. In short, I will be very surprised if I manage see a better film at this festival.