An artsy French girl in New York helps a musician break free from the bonds of family responsibility to realize his dream in Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis’ slight, predictable debut, “Swim Little Fish Swim.” Cute French girl dresses with panache; cute French girl has a famous artist mom; cute French girl has a winning smile seen in pretty closeups; cute French girl is, by the way, co-helmer/scripter/producer Bessis. Enjoyable music keeps things on a happy plane, even if a certain tweeness compromises the film’s attempt at indie Gotham grit. An arthouse release might make a petite splash.
French helmers Amar and Bessis have unabashedly fallen under New York’s spell, crediting John Cassavetes (no surprise) and the new wave of indie filmmakers like Lena Dunham and lead actor Dustin Guy Deffa for the neorealist vibe and naturalistic acting they deliver here. Folding together quirky musicians, uptight art dealers, couch surfers and other newbie New Yorkers, “Swim Little Fish Swim” is another glimpse at the melting pot as a crucible of dreams; thank goodness the stereotype is occasionally accurate, otherwise these forced half-portraits of unconventional downtown types mixed with nebbishy Jewish families would make you plotz.
With her visa about to expire, Lilas (Bessis), a wannabe experimental video artist (of course!), should be flying back to France; certainly her domineering mother, Francoise (Anne Consigny), is demanding her return. Bailing from the long-haired nudist painter she’s been shacking up with, she charmingly (she does everything charmingly, in that ooh-la-la way) takes up couch-surfing residence in the apartment of Leeward (Deffa) until she has to head to JFK.
Leeward’s wife, Mary (Brooke Bloom), is not pleased that a stranger is crashing in her living room, largely because tensions with hubby are reaching the boiling point. Mary’s a nurse and the sole breadwinner in the house, which also includes daughter Maggie, sometimes known as Rainbow (Olivia Durling Costello). Idiosyncratic Leeward just wants to make music with his daughter’s toys, while his Debbie Downer wife wants him to shockingly compromise his scruples and earn some money by writing a jingle. Fortunately, Leeward’s got Lilas, along with his bubbe (Joy Seligsohn) on his side to push aside crass notions of commerce interfering with artistic integrity.
The filmmakers really give poor Mary the short end of the stick, making her seem like an uptight nagger, when who can blame her for wanting her head-in-the-clouds husband to pull some weight in the house? Piling on further condemnation, the script makes clear that Mary wants to buy a house in (gasp!) Jersey City, which really signals her as a capitalist sellout with no soul.
Amar and Bessis want to have it both ways: to poke fun at the contempo gallery scene and its pretensions, and to celebrate genuine creative forces just waiting to be noticed. The real artists are the hidden ones, the rest either merely ridiculous or, in the case of Francoise, so hardened by celebrity that they need to be dragged down to earth in order to appreciate talent. The themes feel at once old and immature.
Deffa has a relaxed screen presence that suits a downtown (more Brooklyn) vibe, balancing sardonic with bumbling, though he seems like a fish out of water with a yarmulke on. With her bright eyes, rouged lips and distinctive dress sense, Bessis may effortlessly embody the quintessential gamine, yet the act grows cloying when the loving shots are piled one after another.
HD lensing has been filtered and color-corrected to lend the pic a textured celluloid feel more in keeping with the helmers’ role models, and the lack of a digital edge is one of the most gratifying visual elements. Colin Summer, frontman for the Toys and Tiny Instruments, dubbed Deffa’s singing voice in a felicitous match of sound and character.