The journey through grief, loss, and depression can often be a solitary one. A moment in time where a world full of the diversity of life, people, animals, and color, is swept to the sea and you are left with an isolating void of muted memories and half remembered thoughts. The Midnight Swim — a 2015 film recently made available on home video and streaming — written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, dives deep into the nuance of these feelings through poetic and graceful filmmaking.
Smith’s thoughtful attention to detail and grounded characters through her writing and directing creates a perfect counterbalance to the Shasheen Seth’s dreamlike cinematography that often felt spell-bounding. However, when the film’s ending is unable to stay above the waves it crafted so well through its runtime, it still left a lingering hold on me that keeps me in its deep waters.
The film’s premise is a foundational inciting incident. Three half-sisters, June, the youngest and an aspiring documentarian, Annie, the eldest that has so much to hold together, and Isa, the middle wild child of the three, come together after being separated for several years to sell the their childhood home after the presumed death of their mother, an ecologist, after she goes missing during a diving excursion in their hometown lake she helped preserve, Spirit Lake. The sisters are confronted with their past traumas from living with their mom and the supernatural when they hear a story about seven sisters who all died in the lake and they jokingly seance the seventh sister to come back on a dare one night on the lake.
The film then meditates on the next few days as the sisters stay in their mother’s house, meet with an old childhood friend, and the increasingly scary nightly event of a bird slamming into their front door. Their family is put through the ultimate test of staying together and they begin to search into what could’ve happened to their mother and the mystery of the lake.
Visually, it’s a stunning and subtle film. Mostly shot as found footage film through the perspective of June that allows her often silent demeanor in dialogue to be filled with her voice in the film’s cinematography. Scenes where the sisters sit together eating or hanging out at the lake feel as if you are watching someone’s family videos. That feeling of authenticity wouldn’t have been possibly if it wasn’t for all three of the actresses being incredibly on top of their performances that left me fully convinced the were real sisters. Jennifer Lafleur, who plays Annie, shines in her aspiration of trying to be the rock of the family while also having the awareness that the pain her mother inflicted on her has never healed. Aleksa Palladino as Isa is captivating to watch as her portrayal can move in fluidity from a flirtatious playfulness with Josh, played by Ross Patridge, to a deeply caring and introspective sister that tries to keep everyone centered and grounded.
The breakout performance for me, however, is Lindsay Burdge’s June. Quietly thinking aloud, is the best way I could describe Lindsay’s June whenever she is on or holding the camera. Whenever there was a moment of June had a chance on screen, there was intensity that often felt like you could feel her struggling to convey her thoughts and opinions into a language that was understandable to others. So when she was the one holding the camera, it felt often felt like that struggle was no longer there and instead being conveyed perfectly.
That struggle for complete transparent communication is what sold me on the film, ultimately. The Midnight Swim is unflinching in the process of forcing the audience in being both a spectator of its story and a participant of being inside the head of June through its filming often crafted a more unsettling and existential journey through grief that was no longer an individual experience but a collective one. It’s filled to the brim with an emotional depth that kept me at rapt attention to see what would happen to this family all the way up until the ending. Much like waking up form a vivid dream, The Midnight Swim ends in an abrupt fashion that felt too quick to have earned its conclusions. It felt more like it needed an ending rather than this was the ending that was intended.
Its climatic twist suffered from a character reveal that didn’t build enough of its foundation for me to buy into it. From this moment it tries to go back to its dreamy aesthetic that was a beautiful ending that lost the weight of its punch just a few minutes earlier. This was the only gripe I had through the whole experience.
As a directorial debut, The Midnight Swim is a stand out and remarkable artistic feat. Where many other films would travel through solid ground and traditional visual language, The Midnight Swim, submerges itself in an emotional vision that floods the depressive, isolated void with the vivid color of empathy and communication.