Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, The Midnight Swim is a low-key found footage movie that subtly blends sorrow with scares. The emphasis here is on "low-key" -- for many, labeling The Midnight Swim a "horror movie" will seem like an exaggeration. However, Smith has a knack for tapping into the viewer's imagination, and the found footage format naturally lends itself to horror, telling the audience in advance that they'll never know more than the person whose point-of-view we've been dropped into. There is the sense that anything could lurk outside the edges of the frame, including a world where, regardless of what we've seen so far, something supernatural or other-worldly is more than possible.
The bulk of The Midnight Swim has to do with atmosphere, and the way Smith's screenplay constantly gives us just enough information to add to that atmosphere. On their first night in the house, after Josh tells them the story, they head out to the dock behind the house and perform the "Bloody Mary"-like "ritual" that supposedly summons the missing seventh sister. It seems as if nothing happens, but during the night, Isa and June are awoken by a noise and discover a dead bird on their doorstep, the first of several that appear throughout the film. Josh and Isa go fishing while June watches, and Isa catches a blanket instead of a fish, an old-looking one that she inexplicably holds onto, following which she learns a mysterious song in another language, which she claims came to her in a dream. On another day, Isa, Josh, and June travel to their mother's laboratory in the nearby area, and discover a map of the lake with surreal notes written on it.
Simultaneously, Smith works in little details about the family's less supernatural struggles, including a rift between Annie and her mother that was never resolved, as well as Annie's own personal struggles. Isa becomes attached to the house soon after arriving, and pushes back when a realtor shows up and suggests that a new owner would likely raze the house and repurpose the property however they saw fit. Later, there are moments of brief catharsis as all three women and Josh dig through Amelia's closet and try on some of her outfits. The dramatic revelation about Annie's past that is revealed here is one of the movie's more hamfisted integrations of story and character, but the actors manage to pull it off well enough. There is also a delightful interlude where the women film a music video, possibly a recreation of one they had initially made as teenagers. Their relationships with each other feel authentically lived-in, which only adds to the eeriness of the movie's unexplained, seemingly supernatural elements.
As the film segues into its home stretch, Smith's choice of how to resolve the story will likely be a love-it-or-hate-it fork in the road. One can't accuse her of not playing fair, with various elements introduced early on and integrated throughout, but it's not hard to picture many feeling like the film spends so much time playing with the open-ended nature of its ideas that the eventual conclusion is disappointing in comparison by removing the world of possibilities that exist outside the POV frame. Viewed from a character perspective, though, Smith's choices make sense, taking some of the little details that she's woven throughout the film and contextualizing them into what almost amounts to a personal triumph, albeit one tinged with sorrow and regret. In its final moments, there is a haunting quality to where Smith takes us, but also an undeniable amount of hope.
The DVD, Video, Audio, and Extras