Monday, September 19, 2005

Boston Film Festival, Day Five: Swimmers

Missed Day Four, since even bailing out of work at 4:20,I couldn't get to Boston Common in time for Long Distance (grumble gumble one show Monday at 5:30 grumble grumble), and I figured Prime would play for < $10 within a few months; after all, it's a Universal picture with Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. Of course, this was the line of reasoning that led me to skip Miramax's Fifth Wheel with Ben Affleck and Denise Richards a few years ago in favor of the astonishingly awful Edges of the Lord, but I was tired.

One thing about the cast of Swimmers: I ♥ Sarah Paulson and wish Warner would release Jack & Jill on DVD. That's all.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival)

There's a neat question not quite articulated in Swimmers but which is at the heart and tone of the story: When is the worst time to lose the thing you do best and perhaps love most?

For 11-year-old Emma Tyler (Tara Devon Gallagher), that thing is swimming, Her narration describes how swimming is like flying through the water, and it's immediately obvious that this is her thing, which is why it's like a knife in the gut when midway through a meet she just suddenly sinks, having to be pulled out of the water and rushed to a hospital, where we find out that a blood vessel in her ear has burst, and she'll need expensive surgery to retain her hearing, let alone be able to swim again. That could be trouble, since her father Will (Robert Knott) has just run his oyster-and-crab fishing boat aground, cutting off the family's main source of income and leaving Will with a lot of unaccustomed time on her hands. Soon after, a troubled young woman returns to town after a long absence: Merrill (Sarah Paulson) draws the attention of Emma's policeman brother Clyde (Shawn Hatosy) when he thinks he's caught her trespassing, though it is in fact her house.

Movies with young protagonists invite additional scrutiny because their central performance has to display a level of skill normally associated with adults, or at least experienced actors, but also communicate the innocence and confusion of childhood - which the obtaining of experience tends to obliterate. The filmmakers appear to be lucky to have found that in Miss Gallagher, who is new enough to merit an "introducing" credit (though she is also one of the students in Mad Hot Ballroom, filmed after this picture), but appears to be capable enough to carry much of this film on her shoulders. It helps that she's not called upon to replicate stereotypical wide-eyed joyful innocence, which often comes off as saccharine; instead, she makes Emma sort of dour and observant, but not always capable of comprehending what she sees. She doesn't smile often; she's more likely to have that look of intense concentration that kids sometimes get when faced with a tricky task (or the need to ignore adults).

Robert Knott and Cherry Jones are very good as her parents. It's a somewhat familiar set-up: Father Will loses his livelihood and has a hard time adjusting; mother Julia holds the family together when he doesn't bounce back very quickly. There is, of course, drinking involved in Will's inability to cope, but Knott doesn't make him into a lush or someone who is gaining any kind of obvious escape by it. Rather, he's using it to fill time, and when we see him buying another 24-pack of beer, our reaction isn't necessarily that he's becoming a danger to himself or his family, but that that's money that could go toward his daughter's surgery. Julia, meanwhile, is practical about choosing her spots for confrontations. They play a believable older couple, one that has long catalogued and adapted to each other's faults and moods.

The other major player is Sarah Paulson's Merrill. She's a fairly screwed-up young woman, appearing half-crazy when we first meet her. But Clyde remembers her from high school (she was a senior when he was a freshman) and Emma's a nosy kid with too much time on her hands now that she can't swim. Merrill's pretty and mysterious and kind of scary, and for people who have spent their whole life in the same small town, that's a heck of a draw. It's nice to see Ms. Paulson in a more meaty role than the romantic comedy she's spent most of her career doing, and it's a nice performance - even though, in many ways, her character is the film's darkest and most despairing, she can't be too scary. This would be a different movie if we worried too much about Emma when the younger girl comes to visit; instead, we worry about Clyde. Shawn Hatosy plays the middle Tyler child as the sort of guy who can be cut down by his 11-year-old sister and is going to be in way over his head with a woman of Merrill's baggage. He's a simple man, disappointed that Will taught oldest brother Mike (Michael Mosley) the trade instead of him. Mike is Clyde's opposite; when he and Clyde go out looking for their father one night, we see Clyde's quiet sense of duty while Mike's cynicism irks us, even if it's partially justified.

The film is set in Oxford, Maryland, where writer/director Doug Sadler spent his youth, and all the details feel right. This isn't a film about a fishing community feeling the pinch, but it's an important component: We feel the family's quiet despair when there don't seem to be other options, or Will doesn't know much else. There's something very alien and off-center about the scene where Will's working in a hardware store. I like how he shoots the waterfront with affection but doesn't romanticize the blue-collar environment. The empty swimming pool in Merrill's back yard is a constant reminder of what both she and Emma have lost. And I particularly like a dinner scene where Emma is inexpertly using her hammer to crack open her crab, and it's an amusing thing going on in the background until the situation gets a bit more contentious, we see her get that look of concentration until she's pounding away angry. It's a nifty sequence, full of good character stuff from the adults and Miss Gallagher. The only really big misstep Sadler makes, I think, is the narration; Tara Gallagher's accent feels off and it seems to undercut how she doesn't totally understand what's going on.

The narration's just a few minutes out of the movie, though, and I like most of the rest. The local color adds to the realism without making the story feel only relevant to these people.

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