The Song of Sway Lake, 2017.
Director: Ari Gold.
Starring: Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan, Isabelle McNally, Mary Beth Peil, and Elizabeth Peña.
A young jazz obsessive enlists his only friend, a Russian drifter, to help steal a rare vinyl record from his family’s holiday lake house.
The Song of Sway Lake is certainly a curious film. Ambitious in its desire to conjure up the wistful dreaminess of listening to jazz in a hot and scenic locale, the film can’t be faulted for not having lofty ideals. Unfortunately, it’s in the execution that things get more than a little muddled and confused.
The set up is this: Ollie, a young slacker-ish jazz fan (Rory Culkin) and Sergei, his best friend, a Russian drifter, set off to the former’s family holiday home of Sway Lake to hunt down a rare 78 vinyl record that’s really valuable. Just how valuable -and whether it’s in terms of monetary or emotional value, is not completely clear. In any case, the boys are on the road to the lake to try and find this hallowed record.
At the lake house they indulge in the usual youthful joys of drinking, loud music and trashing the place. At which point Ollie’s stern grandmother Charlie Sway makes her appearance. She gets them to work around the house, clearing up and cleaning alongside the maid (a wryly amusing Elizabeth Peña, in her last screen appearance).
As they work, the boys attempt to find the valuable record. Both have different motives; Ollie thinks it may hold some clues to his father’s suicide by the lake, while Sergei is interested in just how much money he could make from it.
During their stay both boys experience romantic diversions. Ollie meets the purple haired Isadora (Isabelle McNally) and becomes fascinated by her, engaging in stilted conversation and borderline-creepy hanging around whenever possible. Sergei, meanwhile becomes flirtatiously involved with the imperious Charlie Sway.
Set in 1992, the era of grunge music and a punk meets hippy aesthetic, as visually noted by Ollie’s long hair and plaid shirts, the movie has music at its heart. But whereas jazz, and even underground rock of the more avant-garde variety, has an improvised soul working towards the joy of music and transformation, in this film it is muddled and messed up.
There is no real strong plot to speak of, and despite its best intentions, and the beautiful setting of the grand lake-side house itself, the film is largely a good looking mess. The acting is solid enough, and all of the leads manage to draw sympathetic responses, even if their absolute motivations are never really clear. There is a mixing of genre and styles going on, which could have been fresh and exciting, but instead comes across here as directionless and confused.
With scenes going from detective noir, to romance, to thriller, to dry comedy drama and then back again, it all becomes tiring, without a strong enough emotional depth to the characters to warrant much of the ruminative aspect. The Song of Sway Lake certainly has some good things going for it in a visual sense, but it ends up not having a clear enough plot structure to make the most of them.
The Song of Sway Lake is available on demand in the UK and Ireland now.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.