Monday, June 22, 2015

Midnight Swim: Three Haunted Half-Sisters

June, Annie, and Isa are three half-sisters sharing a common mother. Since they are all roughly the same generation, it is easy to conclude their childhood was somewhat chaotic. When their hippy dippy mother meets an untimely end through a diving misadventure, they are brought to together for an awkward reunion. Either supernatural forces or mortal madness (or both) will further complicate the process in Sarah Adina Smith’s Midnight Swim (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Dr. Amelia Brooks’ home is nestled right on seemingly placid Spirit Lake. Supposedly, it is so deep, divers have never reached the bottom. One day, Brooks went down to explore its depths and never resurfaced. According to legend, there is ample precedent for such tragedy. The locals tell of the Seven Sisters who all drowned as each jumped in to save their proceeding siblings.

On their first night, the half-sisters host their old school chum Josh, who is now an eligible single dad. After enough wine, he leads them in a séance trying to raise the spirits of the Seven Sisters. At the time, nothing happens, but strange incidents soon begin piling up. Dead birds start littering the grounds and mysterious time-lapse footage appears on June’s digital camera. She had been documenting their homecoming for some sort of hipster documentary and denies any involvement with the eerie sequences. However, there is something a little off about June.

Of course, it is hard to judge the half-sisters’ degrees of dysfunctionality. None of them seems all that together—and for good reason. As we know from their nostalgic lip-synching, they were raised on the happy platitudes of the New Seekers’ “Free to Be You and Me.” Since then, they have learned the world is not a place where horses run free. Nor does it revolve around their self-esteem.

Smith plays it coy, giving viewers just enough reason to maintain their supernatural suspicions. The legend of the Seven Sisters is particularly compelling, especially when retold by Shirley Venard playing a local amateur folklorist. It feels like the kind of place-specific urban legends every kid grows up with, while holding obvious resonance for the characters. Wisely, Smith is not slavishly beholden to the “found footage” aesthetic. There are times when we completely forget June (or someone or something) must be filming what we are seeing, but it would not have betrayed her Spartan approach to throw the audience a few more ambiguously paranormal bones.

The perfectly cast Beth Grant is terrifyingly crunchy granola as Dr. Brooks, seen in home movies and the like. Ross Partridge is also surprisingly engaging as Josh, despite the film’s very female-centric perspective. Yet strangely, the three co-leads never create strongly differentiated identities for the three half-sisters. Perhaps that is a function of their shared problematic upbringing. Could it be they are actually not separate entities unto themselves, but are in fact the personification of the splinters of a fractured identity? That seems unlikely in the dramatic context of the film, but it sounds cool.

In fact, Smith’s execution is quite accomplished, provided viewers appreciate genre cinema that suggests instead of shows. She masterfully creates a mood of mystery and hard-to-define dread. The backstory is also unusually effective and there is a keen sense of place. Recommended for those who prefer their ghost movies in an art house bag, Midnight Swim opens this Friday (6/26) in New York, at the Cinema Village.