The Midnight Swim is a vast lake. It’s gorgeous to look out on, to gaze into the mysterious waters and ponder its depth. Ultimately, though, it’s a lake without substance. I think that’s more heartbreaking than anything the film itself presents. Almost despite the film’s stubborn insistence on the found footage style, director Sarah Adina Smith presents a vision insistent on captivating its audience. It is captivating. Clever framing, beautiful scenery and an incredibly developed ambient soundscape permeate the movie, creating a collage of undeniably great moments. Great on their own, but altogether a muddled final piece let down by unconvincing performances.
Three sisters return to their hometown after their mother’s disappearance while diving in the mysterious Spirit Lake. What follows is a glimpse into the sisters’ fraught dynamic categorized by trauma, their differing coping mechanisms and their various outlets for the grief they feel over their mother’s passing. In many ways, the film is a refined version of Smith’s 2009 short The Sirens, where two sisters take their terminally ill younger sister to die at a mysterious lake. The Midnight Swim retains the core of that short – three sisters with a deep emotional connection bonded by trauma converge on a lake that holds many secrets.
Most striking to me, though, is how beautiful this film is. The archetypal found footage movie is rooted in an earthy, spirited DIY ethos. We’ll watch a random dude run around with a camera in his hands for 80 minutes and call it cinema. There’s not a lot of concern with lighting or cinematography because that seemingly conflicts with the premise. Despite this, Smith has an incredible eye for framing within the boundaries of found footage. Interesting proxemics, balance, frame within a frame and other cinematography techniques never ruin the idea that June, one of the three sisters, is behind the camera most of the time. Instead, these techniques (or, hell, just the base amount of thought behind the framing of each scene) really enrich the film – it’s a gorgeous viewing experience.
Arguably more impressive is the sound design – this was actually my first note almost immediately after hitting play. Smith once again deviates from the classic tenets of found footage, flourishing the raw sound of the environment into these multi-layered ambient tracks. I am always hesitant to evoke Lynch when discussing films that aren’t his own, but The Midnight Swim earns that comparison through its use of similar juxtapositions and the low rumbling tones and unnerving silences you might find in a Lynch film. It creates the same kind of atmosphere and tension, a bubbling that ramps up in intensity and puts the viewer on edge. When it comes to building tension in this film, the sound design does most of the heavy lifting and make no mistake, it works.
Crucially, though, the film is let down by its performances. There’s an earnest effort behind it, but it’s nevertheless unconvincing to the point of frustration. I get the impression that Smith wanted the actors to improvise a lot of their dialogue along vague perimeters, so dialogue could flow and feel more realistic. Unfortunately, none of the actors were able to convincingly improvise this way. Their delivery is too often stuttered and stunted. Overall, the greatest scenes in this film are very tightly scripted. The scene where Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) imitates their late mother comes to mind. Here, both actor and character seem to lose themselves in their role; It’s frightening, it’s fantastic! Unfortunately, the film is too often not at the level it was at there.
Underscoring the performances, omnipresent, is an unfinished narrative. There’s a very solid basis at play – again, here Smith is refining ideas she was already working with in the past – but there’s never a strong direction this basis is pushed towards. The movie is a collection of ideas, occasionally a display of something real and heartfelt, but too often a series of events that contribute and say nothing. Certain scenes will tease a potential subplot that never gets mentioned again. The film toys with elements of mysticism or the occult for dramatic effect but refuses to actually dig into this or its implications. Even when Smith thinks she’s saying something, she’s ultimately saying nothing. Throughout the movie, different characters expound different iterations of “the story of the seven sisters,” who all drowned in the lake. This story touches on some themes Smith clearly wants to talk about, like family, but aside from some bare-bones atmosphere, it doesn’t actually contribute anything to the film.
The Midnight Swim is gorgeous, if inconsequential. There are more feet shots than a Tarantino movie, and the dialogue irked me much more than it should’ve. But, if you’re a sucker for atmosphere like me, you’ll fall in love with the design of this film anyway. Maybe that’s okay.