The Midnight Swim (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Midnight Swim (2015)

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The sisters have to come home.  They share a mother, whose tireless work in protecting the lake finally claimed her life when she went for a nighttime swim and vanished.  But as the sisters attempt to put her affairs in order they feel a weight, begin to hear shifting in the woods, and a single bird dies at their doorstep every day.  Sarah Adina Smith writes and directs The Midnight Swim, and stars Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino, Ross Partridge, and Michelle Hutchinson.

Impromptu musical numberEvery few weeks I dream of a place no one else can go to.  I usually have other people in my dreams, the typical assortment of friends and loved ones, but in those moments where it's time for my dream self to return to the cramped living quarters I dream of I go alone.  When I'm there I'm at once comforted and feel like there's no way I can stay.  I never want to leave, but as my body rouses itself awake I feel the perimeter of the living space shifting away and like fingers under a running faucet the walls move around me and I awaken.  Sometimes I'm sad, sometimes wishing I would stop dreaming of the safe place so I would not remind myself it exists.

When I first watched The Midnight Swim I didn't realize I was unconsciously returning to this safe space in my waking world.  I was caught up in the enigma, the beautiful voices layering the soundtrack, and the image of a lone woman at the end of a pier who wants to brush against the unknown.  It's taken me a long time to finally sit down and write about the experience, and it needed a second viewing to really embrace the mystery behind The Midnight Swim instead of trying to explain it.  I can no more explain the reasons why I return to the same place in my dreams than the sisters of The Midnight Swim understand what drove their mother to go diving at night.

It's not correct to call The Midnight Swim a found-footage movie, but it's not far off to the technique writer / director Sarah Adina Smith employs.  The key to found-footage movies is a typically unknown editor has found and compiled the footage into a narrative for a specific audience.  Found-footage movies aren't for "us", exactly, which is what makes them so unsettling and voyeuristic when they're at their best.  But The Midnight Swim, especially with its opening and closing moments, can't be edited together unless we want to read Smith's film as a science-fiction recording of the pre and post-conscious states.

Smith's framing is remarkable in the way she establishes the relationship between the sisters with a single shot. Isa dreams, Annie judges, and June can only be half-seen by anyone.

Smith's framing is remarkable in the way she establishes the relationship between the sisters with a single shot. Isa dreams, Annie judges, and June can only be half-seen by anyone.

I would be doing Smith's work a grave disservice by reading it like that.  What the end, beginning, and all the wonderful bits in between, do is remind us of the near-impossible wonder we're around to begin with and the similarly difficult task of understanding one another.  Smith adopts a style which was introduced to me as the found-footage Terrence Malick.  But that description doesn't do The Midnight Swim justice either.  Strict definitions and comparisons don't work well here, and the closest I can come to The Midnight Swim's unique approach is more like a lyric essay told from the perspective of an emotionally invested first-person entity.

We could easily read this as a commentary on the process of film-making, as June (Lindsay Burdge) consistently violates the personal space of those who try and enter the lives of her and her sisters.  All cinema, and documentaries especially, are violations of our most personal moments in an effort to communicate something about existence to one another.  The camera's gaze can be brutal, and in one excellent scene June just lets her camera linger on the face of a realtor (Michelle Hutchinson) as June's sisters Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) and Isa argue (Aleksa Palladino).  Most directors would focus on the argument, whipping the camera back and forth as the sisters make their points, but Smith just invites us to watch the realtor nervously fidget, dart her eyes back and forth, move her mouth as though she's going to say something only to suddenly stop, and occasionally peek back at the camera with a look which says she hopes June is no longer filming.

Surely, this isn't the first time the realtor has been involved in a family argument on property, but she can't stand someone else is watching.  We engage in an unspoken contract when we watch movies it is ok to invade someone else's privacy, but when it comes to our own we're not as accepting.  Smith vacillates between uncomfortable moments like this, or when June's ex-crush Josh (Ross Partridge) dates Isa and is similarly unable to stand the gaze of the camera, and the sisters examining their own relationship with their missing mother.  Opening yourself up to that kind of emotional closeness can be devastating, and part of the genius of Smith's visuals is in focusing how we take closeness for granted.

The fullness of existence is too much for anyone to process alone. So we dive, closer and closer, hoping that the brush with what's real won't crush us.

The fullness of existence is too much for anyone to process alone. So we dive, closer and closer, hoping the brush with what's real won't crush us.

Everyone, but June especially, occupies their own physical space of the home and screen.  They reach out at the table, or during a rendezvous at the lake, but Annie will always retreat to her desk, Isa to her palm-reading, and June to her camera.  One exquisite shot toward the end of The Midnight Swim has what for many movies would be the climactic argument.  But Smith just points the camera to a long shadow cast on the carpet from a nearby tree.  In this moment, more than any other, the sister's are not close to sharing the same emotional space, and they perhaps never will.  It's what makes Smith's most audacious scene, a spontaneous musical number between the sisters, less a frivolous bit of quirk and more a deadly serious examination of their relationship.  They can feign at closeness, and at times empathize well, but they're still playing parts assigned to them long ago, and comes with pressures the sisters may never understand.

This is beautifully realized in a scene where the sisters play dress-up in mom's old clothes while Josh takes a turn filming them.  Annie starts of singing a sweet song to her sisters while playing as her mother, then grows out of control and angry at "herself" as Annie-as-mother belittles younger Annie for not taking care of her sisters.  They fumble at words, but in the end can only cry and try to hug each other for understanding.  There is no understanding of what Annie went through, much like there is no way they will ever completely get the whims of Isa, and June, who's frequently seen filming herself, is as much a stranger to her mysterious impulses as she is her sister.

But the beauty of Smith's film is she still asks us to try.  She exposes the violation of cinema slowly, unfurling in scenes of discomfort and misunderstanding, before diving right into the emotional conclusion we all must interpret for ourselves.  The Midnight Swim is the rare movie which fills me with as much pride as it does empathy.  Roger Ebert was fond of saying movies are like a machine that generates empathy.  I do not understand The Midnight Swim, not in the same way I understand how my computer works, but I feel it.  I feel it on my skin and in my dreams, and I left wanting the best for these sisters and for the dreams of my fellow-man.  That's the highest honor any movie can attain, and why The Midnight Swim is the best movie of 2015.

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Tail - The Midnight SwimThe Midnight Swim (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith.
Starring Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino, Ross Partridge, and Michelle Hutchinson.

Posted by Andrew

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