Review: The Midnight Swim, A Metaphysical Portrait of Sisters

What if what’s ostensibly a “found footage” film were emotionally motivated, rather than financially?

What if it were effectively a POV film, where the camera uniquely acts as an almost-transparent bridge between you and a character’s psyche—her worldview, her ethereal environment and her relationship with two sisters in the wake of their mother’s disappearance? What if the “doc” was simply her own processing and re-editing of the way she talks to herself, to others, to the stars, to the earth? It’s likely not dissimilar to how you, or I, adjust daily information. How we consider words exchanged over later moments, and reconfigure the day, the past, and the future into something new.

There’s a case to be made that Sarah Adina Smith’s invigorating The Midnight Swim is both a faux doc and something more. Less a horror film than a metaphysical drama, the movie is so intimate in its presentation of June (Lindsay Burdge), Isa (Aleksa Palladino) and Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), that it’s ultimately an eerie, honest portrait of sisters and skewed perspective.

June’s camera is an extension of self, and her sisters Isa and Annie have long since accepted such. She’s established as fragile from her siblings’ words and her own peculiar behavior, but perhaps it’s not that far gone from their own coping methods. Their mother has drowned in a lake, one that’s been integral to their lives since childhood. Reuniting at home, the Three Sisters (witchiness abound) swirl through their relationships, how they each recall their mother and the haunting urban folklore of seven sisters also lost to the lake.

Smith and her unbelievable main cast give The Midnight Swim a mystical air. Odd occurrences and minds open to them help the root the film in the strange, magical experience of being a sibling. June, Isa and Annie are three distinct people with a shared life. They are inherently close, as suggested through their looks, touches, joy and fury; the immediate tonal shifts that only knowing someone so intimately can produce. But there are also harsh lines, most closely related to how the three remember Amelia, their whimsical, if flighty, mother.


In one of the best scenes this year, the three wear Amelia’s clothes and each do an impression. Another film would bring this to a maudlin place. Here, it’s emotionally raw and truthful. Throughout it all—the frightening underwater photography; the darkly funny inquiry into selling the house; the buoyant, delightful musical interlude; the half-joking summoning of an aquatic specter; a laughing fit during dinner; an argument over breakfast—The Midnight Swim feels truthful, and cinematic.

As the camera lies somewhere between a tool and a window into June, The Midnight Swim’s aesthetic takes on something deeper than most faux doc films. It’s June’s vision, and though comparatively small, it’s also grand and vivid. The aforementioned musical number is a lithe, silly and stylish piece of work, while Isa’s discovery of a shawl in the lake contributes to occult-informed moments both still in the forest and windswept on the water. It’s clear that Smith, like the film, has that witchy way: A single shot of one character sitting on the dock, head turned back, is one of the eeriest of 2015.

Smith (and June) crafts a collage of words and images that fall over each other, like the sisters’ naturalistic exchanges. Their conversation and looks are offered as much to each other as the nature around them. One motif finds June standing between the lake and the sky, with the stars growing brighter, more bountiful and closer on each reoccurrence. As the sisters’ shared experience seems to represent and flow into the ultimate connectedness of life—the repeating of history, the cycle of reincarnation—The Midnight Swim builds toward an unsurprising, but fitting, mystical conclusion. The camera playing a role in the film isn’t attempting to ground the goings-on, but render the supernatural, natural; to bring us closer, rather than feel something beyond has broken a barrier.

Otherworldly, but no less authentic.

A previous version of this review appeared at Fangoria following the July 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. The Midnight Swim opens June 26th on VOD and in select theaters.