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Midnight Swim, The

Other // Unrated // June 26, 2015
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted November 17, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Following the death of their mother, Dr. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant), three half-sisters return home to collectively grieve and consider what to do with her house. Annie (Jennifer LaFleur) is the oldest and arguably the most responsible. Isa (Aleksa Palladino) is more free-spirited, exuding a flirty energy and carefree attitude. Finally, June (Lindsay Burdge) is the quiet and reserved one, who hides behind a video camera that she uses to document everything. Upon arriving, they quickly settle into their expected roles: Annie starts thinking about what a realtor would need to get rid of the house as quickly as possible, Isa invites their high-school acquaintance Josh (Ross Partridge) over (luring him in using his long-standing crush on Annie to get his attention for her own ends), and June observes from a distance. Josh tells them a famous local ghost story about the seven sisters who drowned in the lake -- the same one where their mother also disappeared. For Annie and Isa, it's a fun campfire tale, but for June, it represents a world of possibilities.

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
The copy of The Midnight Swim sent to DVDTalk was a non-retail screener with noticeably compressed picture and no extras. However, the artwork is an adaptation of one of the movie's less-common theatrical posters, which features white line drawings of various elements from the movie on a black background. It's utterly fantastic -- it seems like a shame that the retail copy will likely offer a much better presentation and possibly even some supplements, but ditch such a stylish design for something more generic.

The Midnight Swim is an insistently small movie, one that plays with possibility but must ultimately arrive at some sort of resolution. Whether or not that resolution is satisfying to those who fall in love with the mystery will be the movie's biggest hurdle, but it's a fascinating and unique picture, filled with strong performances and an overwhelming atmosphere. Recommended.

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