The plight of the idealistic young woman growing disillusioned in the big city is a familiar tale told most prominently in recent times by Lena Dunham. In her breakout feature “Tiny Furniture” and HBO’s “Girls,” Dunham explores the awkward and sometimes devastating chasm between fantasy and reality that often defines the trajectories of aspiring urban professionals.
“Swim Little Fish Swim,” the confident debut feature from writing-directing duo Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar, provides a gentler alternative to this same mold. A soft-spoken crowdpleaser, this admittedly uneven first feature stands out for the way it sneaks up on you. The filmmakers juxtapose their character’s struggles against an older couple facing the practical challenges of maintaining their livelihood, which leads to a thoughtful examination of the youth’s blind idealism seen from both ends of the spectrum.
Though the framework is familiar, the movie has a delicate, personal quality that sets it apart from other unassuming young adult dramas. Besses, 21 years old during production of the film, gives the story its authentic core. As 19-year-old French transplant Lilas, a woman trying to map out a creative life in New York away from her affluent family, she has none of the now-classic Dunham snark. An outsider who chose to avoid the posh European art schools that her successful painter mother implored her to attend, Lilas instead chooses to head to the city with her American boyfriend, whom she dumps in an opening scene.
The story then shifts to focus on Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and Mary (Bloom), the young Lower East Side couple with whom Lilas randomly crashes while seeking a new home. The plight of unemployed musician Leeward, as he evades the need to monetize his work by relishing his bohemian lifestyle and driving the mother of his young child mad, exists a world apart from Lilas’ dreamy quest. But even as the dueling plots never quite mesh, they express complimentary ideas. One telling moment finds Lilas complimenting Leeward on his musical brilliance without comprehending his inability to translate his talent into a career. Though he never says it, Leeward’s reaction suggests that he envies her naivete.
“Swim Little Fish Swim” never pokes fun at its scenario. Whereas the privileged background of the characters on “Girls” positions the characters for audience derision, in “Swim Little Fish Swim,” Lilas is an immediate object of sympathy. Her conundrum is epitomized by the first image: Hands bound together, she poses awkwardly for a bizarre S&M painting before walking out the door — literally trapped by her ambitions. Later wandering town with an 8mm camera and filming everything she sees, her plucky intentions inevitably hit a wall. As she learns from an icy bureaucrat while apply for a work visa, anyone can lay claim to being an artist; sustaining it professionally is a different matter. Despite the smallness of its design, “Swim Little Fish Sim” studies this assertion with rare eloquence.
Though persistently charming, “Swim Little Fish Swim” sticks to an observational technique that sometimes lends a meandering quality to the proceedings, drawing one out of the plot rather than deepening it. But the scattered approach eventually congeals into a pair of mutually involving stories, with the more mature one winning out — the tale of Leeward and Mary is unquestionably the movie’s strongest ingredient, as it finds the musician trapped in a lie, claiming he has been hired to score a commercial just to keep his nagging wife at bay. Despite its loose naturalism, “Swim Little Fish Swim” exists in a classic tradition of blue collar struggles and well-intentioned miscommunication. Screwball comedy maestro Preston Sturges would surely approve.
Despite the lanky Defa’s goofball delivery as he routinely fails to achieve anything, the results of his errors have a melancholic undertone. Just as Lilas flees the influence of her parents, he flees his own: Shabbat dinner at his neurotic family explains much about his declining initiative. Bloom’s performance, as she comes to grips with her husband’s lack of responsibility, takes the movie to a much darker place. Lilas is its vibrant soul, but Mary provides its tragic counterpoint.
The directors compliment the strong performances with a keen eye. Shot by Brett Jutkiewicz, the cinematographer for the Safdie brothers’ playfully dark NYC comedy “Daddy Longlegs,” the movie contains a similarly jittery style that resembles its protagonists’ slippery grasp on their fragile lives. With that dynamic in place, the movie’s semi-uplifting finale is a little too clean — but by that point, “Swim Little Fish Swim” has justified the constant shifting around implied by its title.
A version of this review originally ran during the South by Southwest Film Festival. “Swim Little Fish Swim” opens Friday in New York and is also available on VOD.