A few months back, I got some recommendations to see a little-known Australian movie called Lake Mungo (d. Joel Anderson, 2008). Shot entirely in the style of a documentary, the film follows a family over a year as they deal with the loss of their daughter and the unexplained events that started cropping up after her passing. I normally don’t give a fig about spoilers, but I went into Lake Mungo blind, and that’s honestly the best way to see the movie. There’s a lot of twists and turns, and it’s never the movie you think it is. It’s well worth seeing, even if you hunt the back woods of the Internet for it.
I mention Lake Mungo because those same people that recommend it to me also recommended the subject of this post, Sarah Adina Smith’s 2015 writing and directorial debut, The Midnight Swim.
The Midnight Swim is a found-footage-style film following three sisters, Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino), and June (Lindsay Burdge), as they travel back to their childhood home following the death of their mother, who disappeared while diving at night in nearby Spirit Lake. In life, their mother, Dr. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant), was a marine biologist and conservationist who devoted her life to studying and protecting Spirit Lake, a lake famed for its untouchable bottom and dubious place in local folklore. The three arrive to put their mother’s affairs in order and reconnect, but find themselves disturbed by an increasing number of strange events.
The Midnight Swim is not a plot-driven movie. It’s a film that runs off its characters and its atmosphere. From the beginning, there’s a certain edge provided by the fact that the three are long-separated half-sisters who do not seem to have particularly close as children. In those few moments of the film when the three try to relax and horse around as sisters do, the results always seem awkward and tense, as if someone’s always on the verge of a screaming fit. Each of the three has their own baggage to carry. Annie, the most self-consciously “normal” of the three, found herself shoved into the role of the adult early on, and still carries a great deal of resentment toward her mother that was never resolved. Isa, a bit of a hippie chick, seems to take a bit more after her mother, though without an obsession like the lake she’s spent much of her life drifting.
And then there’s June.
The conceit of the film is that all the footage is being shot by June for a “documentary.” As a result, while June herself barely appears in the first half of the movie, the entire film is about her. In my write-up for Grace: The Possession, I was talking about how one of the major issues for found footage is figuring out how to characterize the cameraman, how to build a personality for someone that never appears. It’s an issue that Sarah Smith handles without flaw. Much of the movie is built around June’s isolation from her sisters. Annie and Isa talk about how June doesn’t like to swim or eat with other people, and neither of them seem to find it out of the ordinary that their sister is sticking a camera in their faces all the time. She spends most of the movie interacting through her camera rather than participating herself, such that when she does appear on camera, she seems like a stranger. Her distance from her siblings and her unblinking digital eye give the film a monomaniacal, obsessive feel, as June just watches the lake, filming herself at night standing at the edge of the pier like the distaff counterpart to Freidrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (well, there’s no fog, but you get the point). There are parts where June’s camerawork gets rather uncomfortable, when she walks into to a meeting between Annie and a realtor and spends the whole scene zooming into the realtor’s face. As Isa begins spending less time with June and more time rekindling a romance with a childhood friend, June just keeps filming the two of them. When the camera is finally turned on June and her sisters talk about her mental health issues, it’s not a surprise.
Given this is a movie that relies so much on tension and anxiety, I don’t feel right talking about the ending. I will say, though, that in spite of the joyous imagery of the final moments, it’s hard not to leave the movie feeling sad about the whole thing. As a whole, the movie reminded me a lot of Lake Mungo, and in some ways the two are variations on a theme. They’re both horror films (however you want to define the term) that use the imagery of horror to depict the feelings of grief and loss that follow the death of a loved one, of the need to move on and the impossibility of forgetting the pain. They’re movies that don’t have the shocks of traditional horror films, but I like them all the same.