The story of working class Chesapeake Bay family members struggling to keep their lives together, “Swimmers” eventually drowns from dramatic inertia. A conscientious, regional indie of a sort more common a decade ago, Doug Sadler’s second feature, after “Riders” (2002), deals with sympathetic issues, but does so in a placid, unstimulating manner not helped by the occasional ludicrous plot turn. A life-saver would be needed to prevent this from drifting out to sea commercially.
Heart of the tale lies in the relationship between 11-year-old Emma (Tara Devon Gallagher) and Merrill (Sarah Paulson), an odd young woman who has recently returned to a small Eastern Shore town after a considerable absence.
Withdrawn Emma was injured in a swimming accident that left her needing an urgent operation to prevent permanent inner-ear damage. Unfortunately, her parents can’t remotely afford the surgery, pushing her beleaguered father Will (Robert Knott) to a rash act that deprives him of his fishing boat, his only source of livelihood.
Tension at home drives Emma to seek solace elsewhere, and Merrill provides it. Emma’s such a private kid that the audience receives scant reward for all the time spent with her, while Merrill, who’ll pulling out of a funk of her own, exhibits incomprehensible behavior at times, especially when it comes to her impulsive offers to provide a very particular sexual favor, first to Emma’s dopey brother Clyde (Shawn Hatosy), a local cop, then to their ne’er-do-well brother Mike (Michael Mosley).
With her husband floundering and her daughter becoming too attached to the mysterious stranger, it falls to tough-minded matriarch Julia (Cherry Jones) to pull everything together as best she can.
Sadler offers an earnest, dreary take on the near-despair of everyday life among these unexceptional characters, refusing to inject humor, complexity or arresting character development. Performances are OK, but all muzzled by the same lack of dramatic adventurousness that marks the entire film.
Locations in Oxford, Md., and environs provide a fresh backdrop for the action, although narrow scope allows for little sense of community to develop. Craft elements are decent.