Close your eyes and picture the best day in your life. Imagine the sights, the smells, and the sounds. Remember how it all felt on your skin. On your nerves. On your bones. As you open your eyes, you remember that moment in all its fleeting glory because that’s all that’s left in the passing of time: our memories and the way we relive them. No matter how hard we clutch them, no matter how hard we cling to them, we can’t relive them in the way we want. Not in the present, not in any tangible way. In some regards, the notion of time as a stream we can only dip our toes in but not control is a core theme of Ari Gold’s The Song of Sway Lake. As representatives of the past and the future collide in the present, arguing over value, arguing over meaning, Sway Lake beckons them all to focus on what’s good, appreciate the now, and remember.July 1992, Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) and his friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) travel to Ollie’s family lake house located at Sway Lake in upstate New York to track down a rare, unopened record that belonged to Ollie’s recently deceased father, Timmy (Jason Brill). While there, Ollie’s grandmother Charlotte (Mary Beth Peil) arrives with her caretaker Marlena (Elizabeth Peña) under the guise of coming to speak at a town hall meeting, but are truly there to find the record for themselves. As each group searches for the record, an object of untold monetary and emotional value to all involved, Ollie, Nikolai, and Charlotte are forced to examine within themselves what’s worth more: what was or what is. Between Gold’s precise direction, Eric Lin’s (Hearts Beat Loud) luxurious cinematography, and the somewhat illusive script co-written by Elizabeth Bull with Gold, Sway Lake transforms from a dramatic exploration of family dynamics into a meditation on time and humankind’s frustrated relationship with it. Opening on the water, the sound of jazz filling the air, two bodies, naked, swim in the water as Commander Hal Sway (voiced by Brian Dennehy) speaks to his beloved Charlotte via a letter written while away with the military. This is a moment of past and future combining to recreate for us, the audience, in the present, a timeless scene of lovers enjoying one another. The blue-green water ripples with their kicks, air bubbles floating to the surface, the sun’s rays bouncing off their bare skin. As the music plays, we’re transported to a different time, a different place, of peace, love, and serenity. After a brief historical montage to catch us up on the Sway family, the story continues in February 1992, the lake frozen over, the air bitter cold, and no more jazz lingers in the air. There’s a darkness that foreshadows not just a terrible personal loss, but a metaphysical one. This home on Sway Lake, once a home of laughter, love, and music is devoid of all these things. As the characters of Sway Lake begin to fill the rooms and engage each other, the color and sound return. So does a longing for love and peace. A return to life. Most interestingly, despite each of the characters demonstrating a shallowness which suggests a longing for a certain kind of life – one of riches, of love, or of family –it’s revealed through subtextual performance that what they each truly desire is a different time. Utilizing a combination of staging and nature shots, Gold and Lin convey the dissonance within the characters. This is primarily executed through long, still shots of nature which enable the audience to observe the lake in all its purity, clouds floating through the sky, fog rolling through the trees, and the water rippling with the movements of the wind. In contrast, the once quiet oasis is now home to rowdy kids with fireworks and jet skis. Finding the peace threatened, Ollie and Nikolai engage with violence, unintentionally adding to the degradation of the lake. These scenes establish a transition in time for the lake, how it’s used, and how it’s viewed. Is it a source of tranquility or a social area or is it an exalted crypt or a living thing which must move on? As the story unfolds, Sway Lake is revealed more and more as a space, which, as may be inferred by the title, beckons to others to come enjoy its beautiful views and cool waters. One in which these characters seem forever destined to be unable to wrench free. As our modern society becomes increasingly driven by monetized nostalgia, The Song of Sway Lake is a hauntingly beautiful warning for the future as much as it is a simple, suspenseful drama. Unable to handle the present, the characters cling to the past, hoping that the memories of yesterday will somehow better their today. The performances by Culkin, Peil, and Sheehan are extraordinary in how they do so much even when doing so little. These characters don’t command via large actions, although much of Nikolai’s presentation is through grand gestures. It’s the fact that their arcs are largely driven by what they do versus what they say. Actions speak loader, after all, and it’s the actions they take, not just the words they speak, which pierce the audiences’ consciousness. In the shadow of Sway Lake, these characters live and breathe, and they carry on in the minds of the audience even after the credits roll.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.