Here’s one of those not-so-secret secrets, we’re all broken people. Everyone. I suppose what makes us human is our ability to triumph above our brokenness. This journey to adulthood usually involves the choice to face our pain and choose whether to go it alone or with the help of others. Such is the story of Tess (Summer Spiro) in Justin Lee’s Swell, a young surfer, who goes on a life-affirming road trip with her best friend Vera (Gabrielle Stone) at the behest of her wise grandfather Harold (Corbin Bernsen).
Tess and her grandfather Harold have an extraordinarily tight family bond. As a child, Tess lived with her mother, step-father, and half-brother in a rather abusive situation, that only Tess truly understands. Her grandfather, in a way, became her surrogate parent by teaching her how to surf and acted as a refuge during especially tough times. How do we know this? The film opens with Harold talking to a hospital therapist (Adrienne Barbeau) as part of Harold coping with the fact that he is losing his battle with cancer.
As a dying wish, Harold tells Tess to get away and go on a road trip because she’s carrying too much guilt and harboring too many demons from her past. He explains that holding on to her past is what’s holding her back in life. This is the first problem with Swell. Harold just gave away the plot of the film. No foreshadowing. No mystery. This is the message of the entire film. More on this later.
The purpose of this road trip to the Pacific Northwest is to visit Tess’ half-brother, whom she hasn’t seen in 18 years. Once close, Tess left her half-brother behind to save herself. Afraid to face the situation alone, Tess drags Vera along for support. While best friends, Vera is annoyed that not only is this the first time she knew Tess had a brother, Tess refuses to talk about her family at all. On the other hand, annoying is probably the best way to describe Vera’s personality.
“…a young surfer, who goes on a life-affirming road trip with her best friend…at the behest of her wise grandfather…”
The drive north is going to be a long one, especially for the dueling personalities of Tess and Vera. Tess gets on Vera’s case for not making something with her life as her priority appear to be on men and drinking. But then Tess plays her cards close to her chest and quickly changes the subject whenever her past is brought up, which is equally frustrated with the person you call your best friend.
While at a rest stop, the ladies stumble across a sort of man-child Noah dressed in a dinosaur/dragon costume. The probably twenty-something-year-old Noah (Brennan Murray) is hitching his way in the same direction hoping to get a ride to the land of the dinosaurs. Noah is a young adult, but maturity-wise stuck in a child-like state. He has a childlike energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity, which Tess finds endearing. Tess agrees to take Noah to his destination, mostly to annoy Vera.
As this is Tess’ trip, she insists that the trio camp under the stars every night. While Noah sets up the campground, Tess wonders off into nature to reflect. While on her hike, Tess bumps into Ono (Kuali’l Wittman) another wandering soul, and immediately hit it off as friends. Eventually Ono invites himself on the trip North thinking he may have found a kindred spirit in Tess.
While road trips sound fun, there are reasons we don’t go on many of them. You know that at some point being with the same people in close proximity for an extended period of time, can wear thin on everyone. Emotions surface to the top, the wrong words are said, then followed by brutal, hurtful, honestly.
Let me start by saying that Swell is a film with the best of intentions and at its core has something important to say about friendship and family, along with importance of being open and honest in our relationships for our own sake and the sake of others. The problem with Swell is that it made several technical storytelling errors.
I mentioned the first error earlier. It’s the old adage: “Show, Don’t Tell.” The reason I know Tess is a strong woman with trouble from her past is we’re told everything in the opening narration. The same reason I know that Tess is hiding her past, carrying it inside her, and she’s going to have to face it at some point (in this film). All this information should have been kept a secret and revealed in bits and pieces. By bringing it out in the beginning, it undermines Summer Spiro’s fantastic performance as Tess. Spiro appears to have the talent to bring this subtext out in her performance. This is the reason you have actors.
“It’s the actor’s job to connect with the audience to make her character’s arc pay off…”
The other problem is that by telling the audience Tess’ back story upfront, the audience being told they need to sympathize with Tess. In other words, sympathy needs to be earned by the actor and not demanded by the screenwriter. It’s the actor’s job to connect with the audience to make her character’s arc pay off in the end. Young screenwriters often make the mistake of telling their story through the actor’s dialogue rather than through the actor’s performance.
I would be remiss if I didn’t question the Noah character. It’s risky to include characters with disabilities from both a writer’s and critic’s standpoint (See our Cinemability Interview). Questioning or criticizing portrayals of mentally-challenged characters can draw charges of insensitivity “in these times.” Again, I’m certain the Noah character was created with the best of intentions, but I was puzzled with the very nature of the character (and still am). Why is the twenty-something young adult acting like a ten-year-old? Yes, I know part of that is revealed in the reveal, but is he mentally-challenged or a dissociative disorder from a traumatic event? Then the bigger mystery, how did he get to a highway rest stop with no money, no identification, and a relatively clean dinosaur costume? Add to that a scene with Tess in a diner, where the conversation conveniently gets right to the problem between Tess and Vera’s friendship.
That said, there’s are positives. You can’t lose by filming in the beach and forests of the Pacific Northwest. It’s beautiful and the sets are inexpensive. The performances are just as solid as well. Watching Corbin Bernsen is always a joy, and while the hospital bed conversation does feel a little melodramatic, it takes veteran talent to get it down right. Spiro is great as Tess, and she carries the entire film. In spite of the storytelling flaws, she did not need to rely on the set-up for us to buy her character’s journey. Gabrielle Stone is terrific too as the just-as-flawed Vera serving as a contrast to Spiro’s introspective Tess.
In the end, I’m on the fence with Swell tipping on the side of a recommendation thanks to the lead performances, insight, and positive message. But it should have been a lot better than it was. It’s clear that Justin Lee had a firm grasp of on the subject matter. He knew what he wanted to say, but he should have saved it for the end, instead of at the beginning.
Swell (2019) Written and directed by Justin Lee. Starring Summer Spiro, Gabrielle Stone, Corbin Bernsen, Brennan Murry, Kuali’l Wittman.
5.5 out of 10 stars