“Budgets? We don’t need no stinking budgets!” Sara Adina Smith (probably) uttered before making The Midnight Swim, because budgets be damned, this focused tale-teller achieves chills through natural, organic storytelling. You won’t find a single special effect, any inclusion of CGI, or any trace of cinematic magic, yet tension mounts like a thick fog rolling over a glassy lake. It’s a slow, steady burn whose mundane presentation certainly won’t play to all audiences equally, but for more patient minds, an Earthy story ripe with curiosity and exploration exists for the taking. And what an oh-so-sugary-sweet victory for Smith it is.
This is a “W” for the little guys; the ones who go the independent route so they can tell their own story without restriction. On the flip side, I’m sure a whole new generation of wannabes will now be inspired to find the same success with nothing but a handheld camera and some mumbling actors, but until those goons flood our senses with garbage, we can appreciate the simplistic horrors of The Midnight Swim.
It all starts when three sisters reunite at their deceased mother’s waterfront house. Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino), and June (Lindsay Burdge) are still coping with their mother’s loss after she dove to the bottom of a local lake and never resurfaced, but they look to each other for comfort. The trio reminisce about the good and the bad, which is recorded by June for a family documentary project.
Yet, even though their mother has passed, uncertainty lingers in her empty lake house, and the sisters question what really became of their passed guardian. Having no body to mourn is a strange occurrence, no matter how deep a lake is, and these questions begin to eat away at June. But nights only become stranger when a local folktale shows signs of being built on truth, and the legend of a midnight swim where bathers never return becomes an obsession of June’s transfixed camera lens. This is where Smith is able to build an ominous backstory, which pokes and prods our minds with a gentle, understated touch. June’s worsening paranoia becomes more horrifying than any monster movie, because the unnerving occurrences seem all too real. Like we’re watching someone’s cursed home videos (but not in a blunt Paranormal Activity kind of way).
Smith’s bittersweet reunion of siblings isn’t a tragically depressing remembrance, nor is it a generic ghost story despite June’s found footage shooting style – it’s a rather quirky combination of anguish, madness, adolescence, and acceptance. The Midnight Swim takes audiences on a spectrum-spanning ride that hits upon joyous musical numbers and sobering connections with the past, pushing forward a hidden air of grief, but Smith’s vision never finds itself drenched in over-dramatics. It’s amazing how something so base can become such a beautiful piece of cinema, stripping away the glitzy gloss of Hollywood-ized dramas.
There’s a tremendous gamble involved with relying so heavily on human connection, but Smith’s lead actresses come together as a powerful triumvirate of indie darlings. The Midnight Swim is a constrained showing of madness that barely reaches a boil; each actress has their own emotional outburst, but it rarely hits a decibel level loud enough to wake the neighbors. Yet, even without volcanic eruptions, emotions pour out of these motherless daughters who are ready to say goodbye. But it’s Lindsay Burdge (as June) who takes center stage whenever she sets the camera down. She hides safely behind the camera, daydreaming about astrological myths and stories about seven dead sisters, yet when thrust on camera, her skittish gaze adds a wild-card-like uncertainty to her interactions with other characters.
The Midnight Swim is a tepid movie; something that barley causes a splash in comparison to bigger, more showy competitors. Scenes are built on playful banter and nostalgic discussions, not grand gestures and in-your-face material. Horror isn’t found in cheap jump scares, but subtle looks and huddled bodies. It’s an analysis of life, death, and everything in between, all captured during a few slow nights in a cozy little lakeside bungalow. But it’s brave, and speaks louder volumes than the cacophony of its characters. Smith leaves her ending open to interpretation in a way, in that a finite event is established, and as kooky as it may seem, we’re left to construct our own belief’s around the film’s final moments.
What you take away from The Midnight Swim is completely up to you, but it’s a damn fine puzzler – cinema needs more challenges like this one.
The Midnight Swim is a low and slow success story that lingers far after the credits roll, washing over viewers with waves of sincerity.