Three sisters are haunted by the ghost of their mother in “The Midnight Swim,” a psychodrama that flirts with going just plain psycho. The thriller trappings include framing everything the audience sees as footage from one sister’s documentary project, but this confident feature-length debut from writer-director Sarah Adina Smith never quite crosses the line into true supernatural horror. Without a clear-cut genre hook, commercial prospects are likely to be limited for a film that otherwise positions Smith as a talent to watch. After making its debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival in July, pic recently won an audience award in AFI Fest’s Breakthrough section.
Somewhat estranged siblings Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino) and June (Lindsay Burdge) convene at their late mother’s lakeside home to spend some quality time together and decide what to do with the property. Annie wants to sell it, while Isa proposes transforming it into an artistic retreat — in keeping with the hippie-ish spirit of environmentalist mom Amelia (Beth Grant). June withdraws behind her camera, occasionally turning the lens on herself for confessional moments that suggest her shy demeanor may mask more severe mental issues.
In between the type of family squabbling, reconciling and reminiscing one would expect in a microbudget mumblecore drama, unusual events begin to pile up. Isa finds herself drawn to Annie’s one-time crush Josh (Ross Partridge), a divorced dad who never left the area and reminds the girls of a local legend about seven sisters who drowned, one after another, in the lake. A half-hearted alcohol-fueled attempt to conjure the spirits of those sisters late one night unsurprisingly fails, but the mysterious aftermath includes dead birds turning up on the doorstep and time-lapse footage appearing on June’s camera without explanation.
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Smith keeps hinting in the direction of paranormal phenomena while slowly digging into the troubled psyches of her characters. Each of the sisters carries various degrees of emotional baggage, which the film is in no rush to unpack completely. There’s a persistent sense that revealing anything too directly would risk ruining the unsettling vibe Smith labors hard to maintain.
Instead, she offers up bizarre moments like the sisters’ musicvid style sing-along to ’70s self-empowerment anthem “Free to Be You and Me” (presumably a song Amelia would’ve shared with her daughters) and June’s late-night strolls along the dock, which take on a progressively menacing, quasi-David Lynchian, quality.
For much of the running time, “The Midnight Swim” is effectively ambiguous, but Smith’s decision to play coy with the sisters’ backstories eventually frustrates. Once it becomes clear the characters will only be developed so far, the film begins to strain under the weight of heavy-handed symbolism (primarily of the water-equals-rebirth variety).
Even though it doesn’t wholly satisfy as a narrative, the pic still reps a technically polished calling card for its young filmmaker. In addition to eliciting solid performances from her cast, Smith has assembled a thoroughly professional film on a small budget. Slick cinematography by Shaheen Seth is a cut above the found-footage norm and the eerie sound design by composer Ellen Reid (credited with “soundscape”) plays with overlapping dialogue, ambient noise, discordant tones and, of course, several kinds of water to admirably disquieting effect.