Mama said there’d be days like this: Diving into “The Midnight Swim”

By Michael Barrett

Sarah Adina Smith wrote and directed a debut feature, The Midnight Swim (2014), now streaming on OVID. What I like most is how elusive and inexplicable it is. For starters, is this a horror movie? Is it a ghostly thriller? Is it a character study of three sisters? I’ve just watched it and still don’t know for sure. I know only that I never got bored or antsy, that it never outwore its welcome at 90 minutes, and that I’m going to be turning it over in my mind for a while.

Most films try to explain as neatly and completely as possible, as if they’re afraid we’ll have questions. We’re given magic answers, as in “This childhood trauma is the key to the universe.” At the opposite extreme, when a movie explains itself poorly or unconvincingly, it feels like a cop-out. Saying “Oh, it’s how you want to interpret it” can sound like the storyteller hasn’t thought deeply about it or is merely stringing together handy gestures.

The Midnight Swim gives me Ernest Hemingway’s “tip of the iceberg,” as though its world contains a lot more information than it’s giving us. We observe naturalistic dialogue and concrete events, as in a stripped-down Hemingway story. These details mask the point that these characters and events are motivated by things we can only guess, or we’ll never guess.

Hemingway’s forerunner in the modern short story is Anton Chekhov, whose lucid observations conceal and imply deeper motives. He’s also relevant for his play Three Sisters, written at the dawn of the 20th Century. In the play, the sisters seem to explain themselves pretty thoroughly, but the story conceals mysteries and refers to unseen characters who affect their lives.

Here’s the iceberg’s tip in The Midnight Swim. Three sisters drive to the wonderful old lakeside home of their mother, an environmental and political activist who has just drowned in the lake–apparently. At the house, the sisters chill, they talk about their mom, they try to decide what to do with the house, they open old wounds, and they start slowly freaking out.

We first meet the women as they’re driving to the property and reminiscing about their mother’s mysterious death and her spirituality. We’re told that mom believed in reincarnation, and that babies cross a “river of forgetting” in order not to remember past lives. We learn that she disappeared while swimming and searchers never found her. We’re told that the lake’s bottom has never been plumbed. We’re never told how anybody knows she was swimming when she disappeared. Were there witnesses?

The eldest sister is Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and she has the most issues with their mom, Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant, seen in old video footage). The issues seem mundane enough. Annie thinks mom was self-centered and demanding, which is probably what most people think about their moms (and most moms think about their kids). There’s an allusion to Annie’s miscarriage. In one original and uncomfortable scene, the sisters do impressions of their mom, and Annie’s performance glides from a lullaby to a parodic berating of herself. She is taking on her mother’s mantle and channeling her.

Speaking of a mantle, Isa (Aleksa Palladino) goes fishing in the lake and snags a beautiful shawl. Later she throws it back in the lake but that’s not the last we’ll see of it. We may conclude that the third sister, whom we haven’t mentioned yet, retrieves the shawl, and it also plays a part in the mysterious ending, which I won’t reveal here.

Also playing a role in Isa’s story is a local hunk named Josh (Ross Partridge). He’s rebounding from some kind of separation from his wife, the mother of his two kids. Isa always had a thing for him, and now they start hanging out. Although he’s an extra wheel, he’s refreshingly not a subject of contention or even interest among the other sisters, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t come in for his share of veiled hostility.

The third and youngest sister is the pivotal one. June (Lindsay Burdge) isn’t seen onscreen as much as the others because she’s “the family documentarian” who’s shooting everything with her video camera. That’s an obvious defensive mechanism to distance her from the world, and at the same time it’s kind of a passive-aggressive act that can make people uncomfortable. She’s in some kind of recovery or rehabilitation, though the doctors have advised the sisters not to “enable her.”

The video element means this movie falls into that sub-genre popular in 21st Century horror films ever since The Blair Witch Project (1999). I call them Diegetic Camera movies, meaning that the camera is a framing device within the story and characters are often aware of it.

Diegetic Camera movies evolved as a response to the increasing ubiquity of cameras, including cellphones, and a general surveillance state in terms of public cameras everywhere. Some of these movies use a single camera toted by one or more characters, as in Cloverfield or The Visit, and some synthesize multiple camera views. It’s a form with rich possibilities that have been applied in many horror items, from the static Paranormal Activity films to the Rec series to films that assemble many sources, like Chronicle and The Bay.

I see Wikipedia is calling The Midnight Swim a “POV film,” but that implies a single POV (June’s), whereas some scenes stray from that. Sometimes she puts down the camera and poses for it, and sometimes someone or something else has the camera, which is one of the details freaking her out.

One example of the straying POV is that scene where Annie imitates their mom. We see all three sisters as the camera swings around to capture them. Who’s holding it? It can only be Josh, and indeed we briefly saw him participating in the fun, but isn’t it weird that June is letting him take the camera, or that he just continues filming something so uncomfortable? Wouldn’t he put the camera down or make a comment?

Here’s another mystery. There’s much discussion of a local legend about seven sisters who drowned in the lake. Somehow they’re symbolically related to the mythological seven sisters of the Pleiades constellation (a story involving suicide and fleeing from Orion), but we learn from a local historian that there were really seven sisters who drowned in the 1920s, and there’s a whole mythology of how they went swimming at midnight and drowned one after the other.

It’s all very picturesque and fairy-tale-ish, but nobody asks how the story lives on if they went by themselves and there were no witnesses and the bodies were never found. Maybe they just ran away together. Or maybe it was a suicide pact because their lives were intolerable for some unexplored reason, or for a more “existential” reason as in Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides. That became another “sisters” movie, made by Sofia Coppola.

If another movie presented me with so many unanswered questions and possibilities, I might think it was careless writing. However, The Midnight Swim has that magic confidence of style and tone that makes me think Smith has considered her ambiguities and feels prepared to live with them. The naturalistic surface is a mere distraction from the bottomless abyss, either in the lake or the heavens or the wheel of existence.

Smith was interviewed by Gruesome Magazine about what horror movie “scarred her for life,” and her answer is Peter Weir’s highly atmospheric Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), based on Joan Lindsay’s novel about schoolgirls who mysteriously vanish without explanation. Smith is invoking a very different variation, something about the legacy of mothers and daughters, something about reincarnation, something about the transformation of women.

Another film The Midnight Swim reminds me of is Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), in which Zohra Lampert plays a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown in a house near a lake. That’s a classic example of a movie whose sense of the uncanny derives from not making sense, or at least refusing to offer a consistent explanation of its events. It would make an intriguing double feature with The Midnight Swim, and so would Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977). But while it connects intriguingly with some very interesting and underseen movies, The Midnight Swim remains its own animal.

About the Author

Michael Barrett has written about film for decades, and for more than 20 years wrote a monthly video column in the San Antonio Express-News. National publications include Video Watchdog, Nostalgia Digest and a colorful piece in Retro Cinema on American No-Sex Comedies. His film scripts include one about a wallaby and a zeppelin that’s had favorable reception. To read more of his work, check him out at PopMatters.

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