The Midnight Swim

The Midnight Swim (2014)

The Midnight Swim first published (in a shorter version) by

The Midnight Swim opens with a lilting lullaby sung by a woman in what sounds like a Middle Eastern language, and with a pure white screen which resolves first to mist-bound watery ripples, and then to an empty bed with a white sheet on top, into which a fully dressed woman will climb and sit half-under the covers, waving directly to the camera. This is June (Lindsay Burdge), and the bed which she has now occupied previously belonged to her mother, Dr Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant). Once residing in this lakeside house in Spirit Lake, Iowa, Amelia was a biologist and ecologist running a society dedicated to the lake’s conservation – and one day, on a reckless solo dive, she vanished into its uncharted depths, never to resurface. Drawn back to the lake house by their mother’s death, June and her half sisters Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) and Isa (Aleksa Palladino) work through their feelings in a stay that reconnects them to their lost mother, to each other, and to the mysterious body of water where they spent their childhood. 

“Do you guys think Mum was reincarnated?”, Isa asks her sisters, regaling them with Amelia’s stories of the purificatory bathing of souls in the Lethe, the ‘river of forgetting’, before rebirth. Like the supposedly bottomless lake, Amelia’s absence is a gaping hole which the sisters try to fill with myths of one kind or another, in an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. Amelia’s watery disappearance – and her daughters’ status as sisters – recalls a local nineteenth-century incident in which seven sisters drowned one after the other in the lake, the last of whom is now said to haunt its waters and lure those who encounter her to their death. This in turn reflects the myth of the Seven Sisters, known also as Pleiades, who, when pursued by the hunter Orion, Zeus turned first into birds and then into stars in the heavenly constellation of Taurus (Amelia, who kept a picture of the Pleiades at her workplace, thought of her deep-water diving as “going for a space walk”). Meanwhile, the lakeside setting, and images of feet dangling from a wharf over water, evoke Kim Jee-woon’s psychological ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). Accordingly Amelia’s death, and the lacuna that it leaves in these three sisters’ lives, is here presented as a small-scale family drama that opens itself to the mythic and the cosmic, the supernatural and the surreal. 

The Midnight Swim

While Amelia may be seen only in old photographs and hilariously cult-like promotional videos, her three daughters have inherited different facets of her personality – and just as in one goofy interlude they find sisterly harmony by lip-synching together to the New Seeker’s Free To Be… You And Me from a 1972 album for children (presumably revisiting a song that Amelia played to them as kids), they are also between them conjuring – and embodying – their mother’s spirit. For much as Amelia was an eccentrically nature-loving scientist who may well have taken her own life, her eldest, estranged daughter Annie is practical and organised, Isa is hippie-ish and spiritual, while June is quiet, aloof and prone to mental illness. A keen documentarian and ‘family archivist’, June records the entire stay at Spirit Lake on her camera, and everything that we see in The Midnight Swim purports to be her footage. While what she captures on film is certainly intimate, her mostly unseen presence behind the camera always places her at a distance from events and people, much as, since childhood, she has never eaten together with her family. One scene in which June films herself asking on the telephone if she can speak to (the late) Dr Brooks marks both her unstable alienation, and her desire for a mediated sort of connection. In a sense, all three sisters are, in their different ways, acting similarly, seeking not just to dispose of their legacy, to make their peace and to say their last goodbyes, but also to reconnect and reconcile with their dead mother. 

Perhaps their mother is also trying to answer back. After drunkenly invoking the lake’s Seven Sisters in an improvised midnight ritual, June, Annie and Isa find their nights repeatedly disturbed by strange noises, dead birds and other peculiar happenings. While such strange phenomena might be variously ascribed to natural causes, to playful pranks or to psychological breakdown, nothing can explain the moment when June’s camera, which she has placed on the wharf to film her from behind as she sits alone facing the water at night, makes its own disembodied movement closer to her. It is one of several hints, if no more, that this tale of mothers and daughters is also a ghost story, tracing the invisible line between the living and the dead. For this is a film of intense feminine energies and frictions, disrupted only (and barely) by the masculine presence of local heartthrob Josh (Ross Partridge). While its setting and characters are concrete and particularised, The Midnight Swim is also ambitiously abstract, poetic even, in its metaphysical concern with space and time, identity and infinity. 

In the end it will come full circle, forging mystic, metempsychotic connections between its mid-western location and that Middle Eastern folk song from its beginning, after one of these sisters follows her mother into the lake’s murky ‘amniotic fluid’ to see what is on the other side. So take a dip into this feature debut from writer/director Sarah Adina Smith (Buster’s Mal Heart, 2016; Birds Of Paradise, 2021), and be rewarded with an elusive, expansive enigma.  

Strap: Sarah Adina Smith’s intimate yet mythic tale of three sisters is a lakeside mystery of motherhood, mortality and metempsychosis

Anton Bitel