In her final film role, “The Song of Sway Lake,” the late Elizabeth Peña delivers withering looks — equal parts disgust and dismay — to a variety of characters, all of whom ably deserve her scorn. A clunky, lurching affair populated by barely sketched individuals who seem to be competing for a most-intolerable prize, Ari Gold’s drama concerns a young man who returns to his grandparents’ lake house in search of a rare treasure, for reasons as thinly defined as everything else in this saga. Shot years ago (Peña passed away in 2014), and released more than 15 months after its below-the-radar Los Angeles Film Festival premiere, it should have remained on whatever shelf it’s been occupying.
In the wake of dad Tim’s (Jason Brill) suicide, Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) visits Sway Lake, a peaceful upstate New York idyll where he and best friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) hope to locate Tim’s never-opened and ultra-valuable record of the Eden Sisters singing a song dubbed “Sway Lake” (performed by The Staves). After promptly breaking in and acting like a couple of cartoonish drunken fools, they’re unexpectedly joined by Ollie’s grandmother Charlie (Mary Beth Peil) and her housekeeper Marlena (Peña). Charlie and her dearly departed military hero husband Hal lived in this place for years, but now a widow — and faced with community plans to develop the lake into a more commercial area, thus destroying its “purity” — she only wants to leave, albeit not before also finding Tim’s precious album.
That plot synopsis makes ‘The Song of Sway Lake” sound far more lucid than it is, considering director Gold’s penchant for expressionistic montages of overlapping past and present imagery (naked bodies and sinking watches in the water, old photos and trinkets) set to narrated love letters between Charlie and Hal (voiced by Brian Dennehy). Those sequences strive for lyrical wistfulness but come across as ungainly. That goes double for the primary story, which is often edited together in such a herky-jerky fashion that coherence is as rare and coveted as the item everyone so desperately wants.
Gold and Elizabeth Bull’s script explains much through scattershot exposition, including the fact that Ollie is, like his father, a devoted collector of classic records (which he likes to grade), and that Nikolai is a fatherless boy who’s been on his own for years. Nonetheless, even this spoonfed information does little to make them, or anyone else, seem like fully formed human beings; in every respect, they’re gratingly insubstantial. The most intolerable of this group — which also includes Isadora (Isabelle McNally), a featureless local girl whom Ollie fancies, and soon pursues — is Nikolai, who Sheehan embodies as a thickly accented, hyperactive clown less fit for a melancholy drama than a “Police Academy” film. And that’s before he starts falling for the decades-his-senior Charlie.
While Ollie eventually locates the record he seeks, “The Song of Sway Lake” never finds a thematic center around which to pivot its action. Everyone is coping with grief, regret, and loss of a past that can’t be reclaimed, yet the means by which they go about this is so helter-skelter phony that the film quickly devolves into a disjointed jumble of pronouncements, visions, flashbacks, and mid-20th-century American song snippets. Often set to Ethan Gold’s cascading piano, cinematographer Eric Lin’s picturesque depiction of this placid milieu is more affecting than any of the cast’s performances, which are undercut by Gold’s shaky formal structure. No amount of aesthetic grace, however, could help sell Nikolai’s eventual attempt to become a surrogate Hal stand-in for Charlie, replete with a kiss that’s awkward to the point of absurdity.