No one’s ever found the bottom of Spirit Lake, the cold well of ill-tidings at the center of writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s feature debut “The Midnight Swim.” Which just makes it as enigmatic and fathomless as the movie around it. Skinny dipping in psychodrama, “Swim” is, among other things, a movie about sisters, who actually seem like sisters. They look alike, they sound alike, they move alike enough to seem like sibs. One is a believer, one is a cynic; one is, at least on the surface, slightly unstable. They may be variations on a single genetic theme, but even their differences speak to kinship.
This may seem like a small thing, but it’s an aspect of filmmaking that’s ignored often enough to be noteworthy when it’s not. And it helps put plausible flesh on a world that Smith has firmly based in unease and unreality.
Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino) and June (Lindsay Burdge) have traveled to the old waterfront family home, some months following the presumed death of their mother (Beth Grant, in flashback), an activist and ecologist who never surfaced after her last dive into Sprit Lake. She was sucked down and kept, in other words, by the very body of water she’d been ardently campaigning to preserve. Did she go down willingly? The sisters wonder.
What becomes evident, as well as annoying, soon after the film begins is that everything is being shot by June, who never puts the camera down. She also always eats alone (“ever since she was little,” Isa adds). June seems to have a history of something from which she’s become “much better,” according to her sisters. Smith leaves the ailment unspecified, but it’s clearly a matter psychological, compulsive and obsessive.
All this information is imparted to the audience via its stand-in, Josh (Ross Partridge) a local mug on whom Annie once had a crush, and to whom the slinkier Isa now snuggles up. (Josh expresses his impatience with June in a way that makes him a lout, albeit one to whom the viewer is grateful).
What looms over the lake is a myth – or is it? – about seven sisters of a century ago, who drowned one by one, as each dove in the lake trying to save the last. It’s a story connected by Smith to the Seven Sisters of Greek mythology, and in turn to the constellation Pleiades, which is a cluster of nebulae that contains more than meets the naked eye. Likewise, the movie.
The story looming over the more immediate sisters is that question of mom’s demise. Accident or suicide? This haunts them all, but most pointedly June, who turns her camera on one morning to find that someone has taken time-lapse footage of the lake the night before. In addition, dead birds of varying species are showing up, one by one, on the porch each morning. Is Josh playing a joke? Is the lake sending a message? The creep quotient accelerates.
All of which is entertainingly awful, but Smith’s real accomplishment is tonal: The overlapping of dialogue across traveling shots and sometimes disconnected imagery; the scattered focus of June’s photography; the sense of menace Smith creates with June’s ambivalent status within the story; the New England gothic atmosphere of early autumn, something as American as Hawthorne, and which permeates everything. This, plus the sisters’ vulnerability, despite their independent air and well-defined personalities. The upshot is tremendous unease.
Just for fun – and utter disorientation — Smith throws a curveball ball of outlandish proportions: “Midnight Swim” segues, unannounced, into a music video directed by June who, with her sisters, is singing and dancing to “Free to Be You and Me.” It’s probably improper to write WTF, but WTF? The viewer wouldn’t be more shocked if Dick Cheney emerged naked out of Spirit Lake.
The purpose is to keep things off balance, which is what Smith, does, early, often and with a consistency of intent and feeling. The ending – which suggests everything from “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” — is not just enigmatic, but dizzying, disorienting, disjointed; the viewer loses his or her sense of time and/or place; everything that’s gone before is cast in a new reality. Which, of course, may be anything but.