It takes a little while to orient yourself to the New York of “Swim Little Fish Swim.” A place where tiny apartments can house makeshift hootenannies in the middle of the day or where a young woman can be tied up in an S & M scenario for the purposes of her experimental art, it remains a playground for dreamers with lots of time but little means, if not necessarily the American dream of the white picket fence variety. Therein lies the rub of this shaggy and often hysterically funny feature, a wafer-thin comedy about a young married couple in the Big Apple whose life is upended by the arrival of a French experimental filmmaker named Lilas, who needs a place to stay while awaiting word if she can stay in the country.
Leeward and Mary were already going through growing pains before Lilas enters their lives. With a young daughter whose name remains a subject of debate despite the fact she’s four years old, their domestic arrangement is equally unsettled since Mary brings in the rent as a nurse while Leeward stays at home to work on his music, the convenience of raising their child gradually being outweighed in Mary’s mind by her desire to buy a house in the suburbs. When Lilas arrives, fleeing her famous artist mother’s reach to carve out a career for herself across the Atlantic, Leeward sees a kindred spirit and uses the inspiration to reinvigorate his flagging musical career.
You probably know where this is headed if you’ve seen even a handful of indie films over the past few years, but thankfully the filmmakers are nowhere as adrift as his characters in finding a sense of purpose. After the haze clears from the film’s introductions to Lilas and Leeward, the film deftly moves the narrative forward while setting up one awkwardly amusing encounter after another. While the free-spirited Lilas starts to adjust to the hipster art scene in New York, Leeward tries to scrounge up the money to record an album, providing fertile scenarios to ratchet up the laughs as the latter visits a recording studio where the proprietor wears a necklace made up of punk hero GG Allin’s teeth and stops by his parents’ house for a shabbat dinner where his wife’s hope that he’ll finally accept a job writing an ad jingle ends in tossed shards of challah bread.
Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, who worked similar magic on the Safdie brothers’ films “Go Get Some Rosemary” and “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” creates a loose atmosphere for the characters to get lost in, but never loses track of them and the actors all have very specific charms, which are all put to good use. The wide-eyed Lola Bessis is winsome as Lilas though clearly not a pushover, which gives some real tension to whether she’ll return to Europe at her mother’s insistence, and Defa is quite believable as Leeward, a frustrated artist who is only slightly more mature than his four-year-old tyke and makes the most of the film’s deadpan sense of humor. The young Costello, who plays Leeward and Mary’s daughter, is also startlingly at ease in front of the camera, threatening to steal the film any time the character wanders out of the eyeline of her parents and is up to trouble. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she was the one who the filmmakers most identified with since “Swim Little Fish Swim” is just as mischievous and natural, not to mention an unexpected treat as a result.