THE SONG OF SWAY LAKE
Notable for being Elizabeth Peña’s last film before the actress’s untimely death in 2014, “The Song of Sway Lake” is an underdeveloped period piece set in 1992. The film relies on bland narration and an empty sense of nostalgia to generate drama where there is little. Sadly, Peña (who delivered unforgettable performances in powerful films such as “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Lone Star”) is squandered in her secondary role as house maid and cook to the haughty Charlie Sway (Mary Beth Peil).
Charlie is an elderly matriarch who returns to her wealthy family’s lakeside mansion to retrieve a vintage one-off 78 record (of the film’s white bread title) to cash in on its inexplicable value. Charlie also plans on selling off the property, but the reasons for her quest for cash is never addressed.
Co-writer/director Ari Gold struggles to match antagonist with protagonist, neither of which is on much display in this piecemeal coming-of-age movie whose greatest strength rests inside its lush autumnal setting of an idyllic [fictional] lake in upstate New York.
Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) has the same idea as his grandmother of retrieving the prized family heirloom when he shows up at the empty lakeside property with his overbearing pal Nikolai (Robert Sheehan). Nikolai is a Russian roustabout with a not-so-hidden agenda of interloping his way into Ollie’s family, or at least possessions, by hook or crook. For his part, Ollie sports an inferiority complex that is at odds with his actorly manner.
A gratuitous sequence of Ollie and Nikolai wrecking shop inside the palatial wood cabin home like a couple of unattended 12-year-olds gives way to Charlie’s unexpected arrival as Nikolai walks around the property naked. Although Sheehan and Culkin both give respectable performances, their efforts go unrewarded due to the film’s endless affectations, such as an array of Little Lord Fauntleroy coats that Ollie is keen to parade around in.
Our apparent leading character Ollie is still mourning his father’s death by suicide in a frozen lake that was once the playground for the rich during the Jazz Age of the ‘20s and ‘30s. These days rowdy youngsters on jet skis contaminate the lake’s serenity. Encroaching development involving a pier threatens to permanently alter the peaceful mood of Sway Lake. The screenwriters can’t seem to make up their minds about whether they miss the good old days when Sway Lake attracted hordes of celebrates and tourists or whether they want it to remain a pristine ecological sanctuary. Any such would-be environmental theme is kept intentionally vague to the point of pretension.
There is also significant confusion regarding Hal’s place as Ollie’s father, or as his grandfather, considering that Charlie brags at the dinner table about “swimming naked” with Hal every morning in the lake. Although, as it turns out, Charlie does have a thing for younger men. Still, it makes for some mind-bending math to figure out how Ollie’s grandmother could have had sex with Ollie’s dad. I dare not call this a plot hole.
Finally being released four years after it was made, “The Song of Sway Lake” is a low budget drama without a center or a dramatic goal. It’s pretty to look at, but nothing more. Offhand outbursts of senseless violence only serve to underscore this film’s lacking sense of narrative direction. It is not a believable story, and the characters are too remote and unethical to inspire empathy. "The Song of Sway Lake" is hardly what you’d call a satisfying movie.
Rated R. 100 mins.
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