Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith’s eerily profound feature debut The Midnight Swim follows three sisters, June (Lindsay Burdge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino). They come back to their lakeside childhood home to settle the affairs of their recently departed mother, Dr. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant). Amelia was passionate about having the bottomless Spirit Lake by their house and led several conservation movements to protect it.
Annie and Isa are at odds as to whether to sell the family house or not, while camera-obsessed June documents everything. Isa hooks up with local bachelor Josh (Ross Partridge), who, while drinking, relates the local legend of the Seven Sisters. A century ago, the sisters all drowned in Spirit Lake. As a joke, the four go through the summoning ceremony for the seventh sister, who will drag you down into the lake next time you swim in it. All of this is in good fun until some bad memories of their mother begin to surface, who went into the lake and never surfaced one night. Then while swimming, something grabs June’s foot.
At its core, The Midnight Swim is a drama about legacy pain done in the format of a found-footage horror movie. The narrative is viewed through what June’s camera captures, with June only appearing when filming herself. Smith’s genius exploration of the format’s possibilities results in one of the most innovative found footage films ever made. The subtle visual power explains why Vinegar Syndrome is releasing a limited edition blu-ray.
“…the four go through the summoning ceremony for the seventh sister…”
While the rough look inherent to the genre doesn’t allow for highly stylized sequences, the director’s harnessing of the visuals as a character within the story creates inspired format deviations in the second half. There were scenes where I was fooled into thinking a technical mistake was made, only to find out later that it was intentional and brilliant. One such format deviation at the halfway mark turns the movie into… I won’t go into the WTF specifics, but jaws will drop.
But be warned that The Midnight Swim is a slow burn to get there, though. The first half establishes the fractured foundation of the family and the mythology of the Seven Sisters. There are several random conversations and arguments between the sisters that reveal their trouble connecting emotionally with their late mother and each other. Burdge, Lafleur, and Palladino pull off the sister ensemble remarkably well. Each sister is distinct, and their bond is tangible onscreen.
The finale is truly stupendous and satisfies in a way The Blair Witch Project does not. Smith manages a climax that is truly cosmic and transcends all genre boundaries. If Stanley Kubrick had lived, he might have made a found footage film almost as good as this one. What is scary is this was Smith’s first feature. Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire, is nowhere near as good as this debut. You would be advised to take a dip as soon as possible; just be warned, that The Midnight Swim is much deeper than you can imagine.
"…Kubrick...might have made a found footage film almost as good as this..."