When we first meet Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa), he’s holding court over an assembly of peers in his apartment, stumping for a book with ideas intended to break capitalism’s bad karma by “building a society based around happiness and creativity.” Soon after, upon welcoming into his home a French experimental visual artist, Lilas (Lola Bessis), needing a place to stay, he strums an original ditty on ukulele, with others joining in on his three-year-old daughter’s (Olivia Costello) assorted instruments. They may suggest an infantile liberal-arts cult, but throughout the sequence, writer-directors Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar purposely juxtapose the excessive sentimentality with images of Leeward’s wife, Mary (Brooke Bloom), working a mundane shift at the hospital, making up beds, changing out IVs, offering a kitchen-sink alternative to the all the good vibrations. Swim Little Fish Swim’s aesthetic is born of the same schmaltzy never-never land as John Carney’s Begin Again, feasting on cloying pop songs and its main characters’ passion projects. But rather than espouse the cliché that creative expression can save your life, the first-time filmmakers subtly counteract it by making their protagonist a hipster Peter Pan whose creative expression is an excuse not to grow up.
Though the central couple may seem devoid of common ground, Bloom’s performance gracefully hints at a shuttered past in the name of being an adult. And her palpable stress is born not of regret for a previous life, but the weariness of hopelessly waiting for an emotional growth spurt from her husband. They can’t even agree on what to call their daughter. He prefers Rainbow, she Maggie, a droll demarcation of battle lines in their marital strife. Traditionally her character would be the shrew, and at one point she does bust up a party, but Swim Little Fish Swim is laudable for resisting that archetype and making her point of view empathetic. Her husband’s incessant irreverent verbal dodges and resistance to taking a paying gig for composing a commercial jingle to maintain “integrity” come off irresponsible considering the daughter in his charge.
This irresponsibility is worsened when Lilas enters the fold. Rather than have her predictably metamorphose into the carnal couch-crashing bomb, the script transforms her into an ideological interference. Though she and Leeward don’t match up in age, they match up in maturity, and she casually enables Leeward’s creative process to the point of relationship combustion. And with her visa set to expire in 10 days, she’s forced to apply for an extension. But upon declaring herself an “artist,” the immigration agent matter-of-factly advises that such an assertion requires sufficient evidence that she, you know, makes a living making art. At times, it’s fair to wonder if Swim Little Fish Swim believes too readily in the sanctimony of the starving artist, yet in this comical moment all the precious snowflakes finally melt away. And even if the film ends with mother and daughter listening to one of Leeward’s sweet songs, it sounds more like a sugary shiv, an effortless reminder that music is but a temporary remedy. Mary may appreciate what his artistic muse has wrought, but she won’t let him off the hook, leaving him to wander in man-boy purgatory, threatening to dissolve in a cloud of tweeness.