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Film Review: THE SONG OF SWAY LAKE is A Disappointment (LAFF 2017)

The Song of Sway Lake
Written by Elizabeth Bull and Ari Gold
Directed by Ari Gold
Produced by Michael Bederman, Allison Rose Carter, Ari Gold and Zak Kilberg
1 hr 40 min, rated R


Out of the 5 total films I viewed at the Los Angeles Film Festival, The Song of Sway Lake is the most baffling. When I first screened the film, I was excited to see Mary Beth Peil (2017 Tony Award nominee whom I adore) and Rory Culkin (a personal favorite of mine) star in a sweet independent film about music, family and romance. What I got when I sat down to view it was a well-intentioned mess of a movie with great acting, great cinematography, great production design and a very poor script that served almost no one.

To start, the film opens with a song called “Sway Lake” playing along with the image of Charlie and Hal Sway getting married in a time long past. For some unknown reason, a voice over (in letter form) of Charlie explaining how important that time was with her precious husband commences. It inexplicably goes on to her son’s suicide (he jumps into the lake and dies in 1992), then flashes to the present (5 months later, she says) where we meet her grandson Ollie (played by a game if a little bored Rory Culkin) and his Russian comrade Nikolai (played by a charming Robert Sheehan). Not only are they introduced visually but the voice over goes on to explain the plot to us (why????!) again in letter form.

The plot: Ollie is planning to steal the original “Sway Lake” 78 record from her house because he’s a music collector and he believes his dad (the one who committed suicide for whatever reason) would want him to have it.

When the film eventually lets go of the tired voice over device, it is a lot smoother but still devoid of the cinematic magic it longs to tap into from yesteryear. The boys go to the grandmother’s house and help out with the grounds-keeping so that Charlie can get closer to the Russian Casanova Nikolai. This was a feeble attempt to add some sexual tension to a film that was so not that kind of film in any way, shape or form.

I’ve seen many a romance between unlikely duos, but this one takes the cake. Not only is the love story wrongheaded but it’s creepy. Not creepy in a good way like a forbidden romance. No, this romance (if you can even call it that) is based on the fact that Nikolai wants to be Ollie’s grandfather. The whole affair (you can’t even call it that) ends in one of the most awkward and unsatisfying scenes I’ve ever seen.

In fact, I would say that for the film itself. It’s so frustrating to watch something that you like in every other way but the most important part is a big disappointment. I think this film could’ve been a fun time to be had by all if a few things happened. If the story about the lake being made public had been more detailed, if Peil was given anything to do other than reminiscing and being kind of a bitch (for no discernible reason), if the romantic arc between Nikolai and Charlie had been scrapped, if the lake was shown to have magical properties as advertised and if the whole thing was better realized and the script reflected real life, this could’ve been a great film. As it stands, the unfinished product is a shell of what could’ve been.

Those of you who love Jack Falahee from How To Get Away With Murder will be pretty disappointed with his role here. He plays a young guy that wants to be able to jet ski on the lake and hang out with his friends there. There’s not much more to his story but he still does a decent job with the awful lines he’s given. Still, in no way does he fill enough screen time to warrant his name being on the poster.

As for Rory and Robert, their chemistry is one of the few reasons I’d consider watching the film again. They actually seem like friends. I wanted more scenes with the two of them hanging out near the dock meeting girls. Instead of focusing on the relationship between the boys and Charlie, the film focuses on Nikolai’s obsession with Ollie’s family. No reason is ever given for this obsession and it’s one of the weakest parts of the story. It’s a shame breakout star Robert Sheehan isn’t given the proper motivation for his character’s actions.

The same can unfortunately be said for the magnificent Mary Beth Peil, who recently dazzled me in “Anastasia” on Broadway. Here, she plays Charlie as one-dimensional as instructed and has no real motivation for her actions either. That’s a problem. She’s made out to be prickly but she doesn’t exhibit that quality until the illogical ending. One of her best moments here (and there are a few) is when she listens to old records with the boys and opens up about her past with Hal. It’s one of the few natural scenes in a wholly unnatural film.

All in all, The Song of Sway Lake means well but comes off as an odd little trifle that I believe is best viewed in the privacy of one’s own home. It’s not really bad but it’s not really good either. Watch it in the theater if you dare, but I recommend waiting for it to come to Netflix or Amazon.

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