It would be easy and somewhat lazy to describe “The Midnight Swim” as a found-footage film, though having made its debut this week at the genre-based Fantasia Fest, the term is bound to be associated with it. However, writer/director Sarah Adina Smith does something unique with her use of first-person perspective and a spooky premise that terrifies existentially.
In a thriller that reveals itself slowly, what’s immediately apparent is that Smith placed a premium on quality actors and strongly composed camerawork, casting Aleksa Palladino, Jennifer LaFleur and Lindsay Burdge as a trio of half-sisters who return to the lakeside home of their mother Emilia (Beth Grant) after she passes away to collect her belongings and set about selling the house. Burdge’s June is a documentarian of sorts, initially shown testing out the camera before spending most of “Midnight Swim” behind it, observing Palladino’s Issa and LaFleur’s Annie come to terms with their mom’s untimely drowning in the lake and with each other since this is the first time in a decade Annie has come home.
While foul play is never considered as a factor in Emilia’s death, strange things start happening during the sisters’ stay. Dead birds begin to pile up on their doorstep in the morning and June finds footage on her camera she hasn’t shot before. These peculiarities clearly unsettle the women, but Smith makes it doubly disturbing for an audience by making the experience of the film almost tactile. There’s an authenticity in the way Smith captures conversations or how people interact with a camera present, but an artist’s hand is obviously at work as the camera will linger over a dead bird as if to contemplate its mortality or recreate the sensation of being in the room by picking up stray pieces of dialogue or scraps of domestic noise. (It’s notable the film gives a prominent credit to Ellen Reid, a composer noted here as a soundscape artist.)
Of course, this is all channeled through the perspective of June and “The Midnight Swim”’s most impressive accomplishment is how Smith and Burdge collaborate to construct a fully fleshed out character that rarely appears in the frame. When you do see June, she’s always in some state of physical recoil, withdrawn to the point it’s understandable why she’d want the distance between herself and the rest of the world with a camera. In a great stroke of casting, Palladino and LaFleur share an uncanny resemblance to each other that Burdge doesn’t, but beyond that, the actresses ably communicate a discord that’s not as overt, with each of the sisters at different places in their life and quietly handling their mother’s death differently. Even when there’s joy in the form of an unexpected musical interlude, there’s something off and Smith mines that air of distrust to build tension.
However, even as Smith weaves genre elements into the film to keep it entertaining, those expecting a big payoff should be warned that isn’t the aim of “The Midnight Swim,” at least in any traditional sense. Yet considering that finding closure is one of the film’s major themes, it’s incumbent upon Smith that she achieve some and she doesn’t disappoint, opting for a finale that ties the sisters’ story into a larger mythology while leaving some room for interpretation. Although a sequel would be unnecessary, one does want to spend more time in the company of a storyteller such as Smith, who creates an experience in “The Midnight Swim” that’s all-consuming, lingering long after the film’s end credits roll.
“The Midnight Swim” screens twice at AFI Fest in Los Angeles on November 7th at 7 pm and November 8th at 1 pm at the Chinese 5.