Ari Gold’s The Song of Sway Lake opens with warm, grainy images of two nude lovers swimming and embracing underwater. Then the film cuts to a middle-aged man staring down at a nearly frozen lake and suddenly jumping into the water and to his inevitable death. This jarring juxtaposition of the idyllic and the calamitous colors the rest of Gold’s meditative yet meandering film, which explores the strife that subsumes a wealthy family at their lakeside home in the early 1990s. Languorous, dreamlike interludes and snippets of vintage home movies recorded long ago at the titular lake capture the peaceful aura of this seemingly placid locale, but this sense of serenity belies the tumultuous history of the family after whom Sway Lake was named.
We soon learn that the man who committed suicide at the start of the film was Timmy Sway (Jason Brill). Days after his funeral, Timmy’s son, Ollie (Rory Culkin), arrives at the family lake house, where he’s confronted by Charlie (Mary Beth Peil), his cantankerous, magisterial grandmother, and the cause of much family drama over the past half-century. Each are in search of a rare and valuable LP that was the prized piece of Timmy’s extensive music collection, but where Ollie, who inherited his father’s artistic and lackadaisical temperament, searches for a tangible and nostalgic reminder of Timmy, Charlie is just dead-set on selling LP for cash, which she clearly doesn’t need.
Charlie is callous to the point of cruelty, even going so far as to say, “It’s easier to lose a father than to lose a son,” as a means of belittling Ollie’s suffering, but she’s given a few moments of redemption that hint at the latent humanity beneath her steely resolve. And when The Song at Sway Lake homes in on the bitterness and resentment stemming from Charlie’s refusal to accept Ollie and her late son’s introspective, artistic, and depression-prone personalities, the film presents a compelling through line of generational discord spurred on by the trauma of an unexpected death. But much like Ollie and his boisterous friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan), who tags along with Ollie on his trip to the lake house, Gold’s film is too restless and unfocused, and as such unable to truly plumb the depths of the Sway family’s troubled past.
Gold, instead, fleshes his film out with pointless detours, introducing a love interest for Ollie in the form of a purple-haired siren, Isadora (Isabelle McNally), as well as a bizarre, half-baked subplot where Nikolai, a Russian immigrant desperate to latch onto a family with deep American roots, attempts to seduce Charlie. While Nikolai is an impulsive wildcard and an incurable ladies’ man, his motivations become progressively more muddled, particularly upon his sudden fascination with Charlie late in the film. The sexual tension between the two materializes virtually out of thin air, reeking of a screenwriter’s contrivance to merely drive home how disconnected the young man is from his own family’s roots and to stir up trouble for Ollie.
All the while, Isadora has little purpose beyond further escalating the rivalry between Ollie and Nikolai and fawning over the shy, awkward Ollie, who lacks the good looks and charm of his friend. These thinly conceived secondary characters draw the film’s focus away from Ollie and Charlie’s feud, ultimately preventing Gold from unearthing what lies at the core of the Sway family’s ongoing friction. Thus, despite Gold’s knack for visual flourishes that capture a sense of place seemingly outside of time, The Song of Sway Lake plays like several disparate melodies overlapping one another, at times quite beautiful to look at but too incohesive to form an authentic and coherent whole.