An aching ode to nostalgia, sun-dappled summers, and scratchy big band-era melodies etched into heavy-duty acetate, Ari Gold’s The Song of Sway Lake is a refreshing antidote to a film season rife with computer-generated blockbusters heavy on comic-book ultraviolence. It’s also not without its flaws, but more about those later. Ollie and his best friend Nikolai, an impossibly handsome Russian thrillseeker, have journeyed to the family cabin this summer to do the wrong thing. They plan to steal a valuable 78—a 12-inch, 78-rpm long-playing record to the uninitiated—from Ollie’s grandmother, the luminous Charlie Sway. And in the past, Charlie clearly did hold sway over this idyllic lakeside setting in upstate New York where the rich and famous came to play. Ollie passionately believes the vintage disc to be his, bequeathed to him by his late father. But Charlie has plans of her own for the rare recording… The performances in ’Sway Lake elevate the drama significantly, given that the drama often involves the thumbing through of dusty old long players or run-ins with misspent youths trespassing on the family dock. Rory Culkin, the youngest of the Culkin sibs (Macaulay, Kieran et al), brings agreeable life to the listless Ollie, who takes a shine to one of these lovely layabouts (Isadora—“after Isadora Duncan”; she’s played by a luminescent Isabelle McNally). As Nikolai, Robert Sheehan exudes a depth well beyond his good looks, and Mary Beth Peil (TV’s The Good Wife), is fascinating as the elderly matriarch who surprises the boys with an impromptu visit. The setting is beautiful—the film was shot on Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks—and the evocative soundtrack couples standards from the likes of Cole Porter with original songs by the director’s brother, Ethan. It’s too bad The Song of Sway Lake suffers from some modest directorial missteps (Sheehan’s constantly reappearing naked rear end, for example, plus some unnecessary “artistic” flourishes) which serve to throw the production’s otherwise charming rhythm slightly out of whack. Still, the film has a serene air to it, and mostly works as a bittersweet love song to the complexities of family and the seductive allure of an idealized past.
(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth