There is a certain joy about going in to an unexpected movie. You can find yourself stumbling onto unexpected gems, or you can find yourself careening into a hot mess of a flick. While I wouldn’t necessarily call any aspect of The Song of Sway Lake a “hot mess,” I do think this film is an example of some very GREAT filmmaking mixed in with a bit of a questionable and meandering story.
The Song of Sway Lake is written by Elizabeth Bull and Ari Gold, and directed by Ari Gold. The film premiered at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, and it follows the young twenty-something Ollie and his Russian friend Nikolai as they search for priceless record from his grandmother’s vacation home in Sway Lake. The record is an original unopened “Sway Lake” record, and he believes that his father (who had recently committed suicide) would have wanted to have it, as Ollie had just as much of an appreciation for music as his father. While at the cabin, his grandmother, Charlie, shows up, also searching for the record. From there, the direction it ultimately goes in really focuses on Nikolai and his connection with the lake, which is something that permeates the second act in a way I won't go into.
Let’s start with the positives. The film looks stunning. The colors are gorgeous, the shots are well composed, and the lighting is often breathtaking. Mix that in with the old music they spread throughout the film, and I really started to appreciate the beauty of Sway Lake. The acting is also fantastic. Rory Culkin takes on the role of Olllie, his best friend is played by Robert Sheehan, and Charlie is played by Mary Beth Peil. There are a few others, but those are the main players. To me, the script doesn’t really give them a lot to do, but based on the performances from these actors, you definitely get a sense of history between the characters that would normally be lost.
While all of those aspects are great, for me, the film kind of loses me with the screenplay. Now, before I go into it, I think it’s worth noting that while I didn’t personally appreciate the script for what it did, it’s by no means offensively bad. When all said and done, this is one of those films that will likely be polarizing to folks. Some will love it because it clicked with them on some emotional level, and others (like me), won’t really get what it’s going for, and will find themselves a bit bored in the middle, and a little confused by the end.
The setup itself is interesting enough. I wanted to know why the record was so important, but then from there, we spend about an hour or so of the film with them fixing up the cabin and having dinners over the course of what seems like a handful of days. Sure, there’s an undercurrent of building mistrust with Nikolai, as well as the side plot with Ollie and the girl with the purple hair, but there really isn’t a whole lot there to take in from a narrative perspective. The conversations are all indirect, and a bit uninteresting. Now, I can see the argument being made here that constant subtext in writing is a good thing (and I wouldn’t necessarily argue), but to me, this only added to the slow pacing of the flick.
One interesting aspect the film does have going for it has to do with Nikolai’s attachment to the cabin. As time goes on, it culminates in a bit of an unexpected way that I won’t spoil. While I found it to be interesting, it also felt a little unearned. We saw a few instances of him falling in love with aspects of the cabin, as well as the idea of being a Sway family member, but there wasn’t quite enough justification in my mind for him to do what he did.
On a personal level, this is a film that just didn’t really click with me. That being said, as stated above, I wouldn’t call it a bad film — not by any stretch of the imagination. There is a lot to like here. Yes, it may be slow, meandering, and a bit underwhelming by the end, I think there are plenty of folks for whom the film will resonate. As stated above, there are some who may connect with the relationship Ollie has with his family, and there are some who may connect with Nikolai’s envy of a home and community. Furthermore, there are some who will also connect with Charlie and her longing desire of the more simple world in which she grew up. But for me, this is the kind of introspection I prefer to read in novels.
So is it worth your time? I'd say if you love gorgeous visuals, and a more slice of life type of narrative, you might find something to enjoy here. If you're someone who cares for more traditional dramatic stakes and a more clear throughline, then you may want to look elsewhere.