A last-summer, coming-of-age movie dressed up as a gypsy jazz guitar fest, “Swing” is a charming slip of a movie that’s a relief after helmer Tony Gatlif’s increasingly operatic tributes to Romany culture. The theme is much the same as before — gypsies have got it right, non-gypsies need to chill out — and there’s still plenty of music on hand to ease viewing; but in “Swing,” everything is ratcheted down several notches. Pic is too slim to make much impression theatrically outside France but would make a fine entry in gypsy/jazz-themed film weeks or tube seasons.
While staying in the Alsace countryside with his grandmother (Fabiene Mai) for the summer, 10-year-old Max (Oscar Copp) becomes fascinated by the virtuoso jazz guitar playing of Miraldo (Tchavolo Schmitt), a Manouche gypsy who performs in local cafes. Trading his walkman for a guitar with gypsy tomboy Swing (Lou Rech), Max gets an intro to Miraldo, who agrees to give the white kid lessons in exchange for the kid’s helping Miraldo write official letters to the social security department.
There’s almost no conventional narration for most of the film: Miraldo teaches Max the guitar, impressing on him the need to learn music through the ears and heart rather than as notes on paper; and between times, Max and Swing become friends, roaming the countryside and boating together, with the gypsy wild child also teaching the middle-class boy not to be too bound by society’s rules.
Miraldo, however, is not a well man, and Max’s life-changing spell with this other culture is threatened by both Miraldo’s failing health and the eventual arrival of his own mom at the end of the summer.
Film’s loose, jazzy feel is made tolerable over the running time by both the splendid music (played by real Manouche jazz guitarists Schmitt and Mandino Reinhardt) and Claude Garnier’s lensing. Garnier’s unaffected use of widescreen Panavision for such an intimate story, peppered with some beautifully lit compositions, elevates the material beyond the everyday without turning the movie into a pastoral postcard.
Performances are largely invisible, even from Copp and Rech as the two kids. Latter — whose androgynous looks even make Swing’s gender unclear for a while — is especially good in the final reels, as it becomes clear that the gypsy girl is as stuck on Max and his world as Max is on her and hers.
The utter simplicity of pic’s ending is a tribute to Gatlif’s restraint throughout.