After the suicide of his father, a withdrawn young man travels to the family home on Sway Lake to retrieve a valuable record.
As the many shots of Sway Lake itself reveal, this feature debut from director Ari Gold regards nature as a thing of beauty. Alas, what this film never manages to achieve is sharing any great fondness for the characters and the drama before us.
Bursts of Kerouacian hedonism from Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) and his thrill-seeking Russian friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) make way for melancholic introspection upon the arrival of Ollie’s grandmother Charlie (Mary Beth Peil), who is looking to sell off the property. There is much focus on what once was, and a nostalgia that threatens to blinker the present for generations young and old.
Charlie and Nikolai are the most interesting characters and have an engaging interplay as each is fascinated by a romanticised version of the other. Unfortunately, there is very little for them to actually go out and do together, putting this subplot in circles for much of the film.
There is at least a little complexity to Charlie, who is at once cruel to those close to her and wistful for a lost husband and a lost era. A great hindrance to The Song of Sway Lake is its lead character Ollie being totally bland, and neither he nor his relationship with local girl Isadora (Isabelle McNally) is of much interest beyond bemusement that she would give such a weedy voyeur the time of day.
At the core of the story is a hunt for a fabled record of much value, recorded and named after Sway Lake. Ollie is convinced his recently deceased father would’ve wanted him to have it as a work of art, while Charlie wants it purely for its monetary value. Charlie is the only surviving person to have specifically been left the Sway Lake record; how Ollie has any actual claim to it is one of the many things never fully delved into. Perhaps more interesting than this tired trope is Nikolai, who appropriates the Sway family history in substitute for his own lack of one.
Unfortunately, there are only so many ways you can film someone looking through troves of vinyl, and the film meanders. This is a real shame as a soundtrack of Cole Porter and Fred Astaire show director Gold’s passion for music, which is also reflected in the attitudes of the Sway family, but a character’s obsession with grading records is equally as unwieldy cinematic material.
There seems to be an awareness that some of the film may struggle to capture an audience’s attention, yet the nudity sprinkled throughout Sway Lake smacks of desperation. Particular focus is on Nikolai’s body, and while the man is undoubtedly beautiful, it’s hardly a substitute for an engaging plotline.
Sway Lake is about time standing still and always moving, preserving the beauty of nature, the selfish joy of youth, the untouchable essence of love. There are many ideas present; perhaps too many for much of it to really resonate. Two affecting moments perk up the film in the final act, but ultimately cliche and melodrama sink the ship.