Breathe it in.
“The Song of Sway Lake” isn’t manufactured or cloy. There’s nothing ironic in its presentation. And a key character hungers for the American dream, even if he has curious ways of showing it.
The indie film unfolds slowly but doesn’t require our patience. The cast performs admirably, evoking another time and place with such precision it feels lifted out of a stranger’s scrapbook.
It won’t change the world. It just transports you in a way you won’t soon forget.
Young Ollie (Rory Culkin) and his Russian pal Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) hatch a clumsy scheme as the story opens. They plan to steal a precious 78 record from Ollie’s grandmother (Mary Beth Piel). She lives on an enchanted lakeside property brimming with history.
The record is part of Ollie’s family lore, something all the more important since his father’s suicide.
Finding the record won’t be easy. Oliie is distracted by a local beauty (Isabelle McNally) and his complicated ties to Nikolai deepen as the movie progresses.
Nostalgia all but swarms “Sway Lake,” but not in the way most projects are engulfed by it. This isn’t “Stranger Things 2.0,” where era clues litter the landscape.
Look, a “Charlie’s Angels” lunchbox!
Director/co-writer Ari Gold gently deploys old photographs, scratchy music and voiceovers (provided by the great Brian Dennehy) to illuminate the past. It doesn’t just catch up with the main characters. It refuses to let them go.
Director @arigold discusses #TheSongofSwayLake & his short films Culture, Frog Crossing, & Helicopter on @FilmThreat with @ThatChrisGore & @thisgamecheats! Check out this rousing conversation about film, philosophy, life, politics, Jodorowsky, & more: https://t.co/tjl6hCVUZ5
— The Song of Sway Lake (@SwayLake) September 18, 2018
Sheehan’s Nikolai feels like a star-making turn, if only enough people see this indie gem. The Irish actor trots out a consistent Russian accent and a playful, irrepressible spirit. More vital? He’s a supporting player who often feels like the star.
Nikolai gives an impassioned speech about his love for America mid-movie, but the film itself is equally smitten with that subject. It’s not flag waving or chest thumping, to be clear. Nor does it sand away the rough edges from our collective pasts. It merely captures all the possibilites in the country’s DNA.
The film’s trickiest subplot taps into Nikolai’s patriotic mien. Gold arranges it so delicately you’ll offer up a slow, silent clap.
FAST FACT: Ari Gold’s brother, Ethan Gold, provides the throwback original compositions for “The Song of Sway Lake,” including the title track.
Culkin has a harder task, making his hirsute slacker endearing. It takes time, but he pulls it off by not trying too hard to win us over.
Piel is as luminous as the landscapes on display. She’s a fully realized soul, someone we feel like we’ve known for some time.
“The Song of Sway Lake” isn’t fussy or pretentious. It’s a throwback all the same, from its old school soundtrack to the small but potent emotions illuminating the screen.
HiT or Miss: “The Song of Sway Lake” is an invigorating experience, sweeping across generations in ways we rarely see today.