The Song of Sway Lake
2018, R, 100 min. Directed by Ari Gold. Voice by Brian Dennehy. Starring Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan, Mary Beth Peil, Elizabeth Peña, Isabelle McNally, Jack Falahee.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 21, 2018
While not always dramatically successful, The Song of Sway Lake earns big points for originality. The film has a distinctive tone, look, and setting, which are supported by strong performances (one of them by the greatly missed Elizabeth Peña, who died in 2014, making this her final film appearance – somehow appropriate to this movie about how the past can impinge on the present).
In 1992, Ollie Sway (Culkin) returns to his family’s private lake in the Adirondacks. It’s five months after his father, an obsessive record collector, has drowned himself in its waters. Accompanying Ollie is Nikolai (Sheehan), a Russian immigrant possessed of an outsized and ingratiating personality. The film’s prologue is packed with background about the fictitious Sway family history, although its jumble of visual styles and wealth of information may prove more disruptive than welcoming to viewers. An impressionistic underwater sequence gives way to a 1940s-style newsreel that relates the heritage of Sway Lake as a rich tycoon’s estate that was inherited by his war-hero son Hal (voiced by Dennehy) and his adoring wife Charlie (Peil, best known for her TV work on The Good Wife and Dawson’s Creek). Subsequently, the home was inhabited by their son Timmy. Ollie, who views himself very much like his father Timmy – unattractive and in love with records – wants to find a 1940s disc that his father categorized as a “perfect record” – so perfect, in fact, that it was sealed up, hidden, and never played. It turns out that Grandma Sway (i.e., Charlie), also has reasons for wanting the record, so she shows up with her maid Marlena (Peña). And there’s no nailing down exactly what Nikolai, an orphan himself, is up to. In addition to the record, Ollie sets his sights on a “perfect girl” (McNally) he discovers on the other side of the lake.
The Song of Sway Lake touches on subjects that can sometimes seem like tangents. Is Nikolai in sway of the Sways or is he a hustler? What secrets does Marlena obscure with her silence? What are we to make of the hoi polloi who invade the lake with jet skis and noise? We get short moments but no resolutions. Still, director and co-writer Ari Gold (director of the cult film Adventures of Power and the award-winning short “Helicopter”) captures a loving sense of the 1940s milieu and the era’s popular music (which is composed by the filmmaker’s twin brother Ethan). More evocative than splashy, The Song of Sway Lake offers a dip in fresh water.