“The Song of Sway Lake” is a 2017 drama written by Ari Gold and Elizabeth Bull, and directed by Gold. The title refers to an actual song, but it still could stand in as a metaphor for the story that takes place by the lakeside in the 1990s.
Ollie (Rory Culkin) and his new but close friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) set out for the cabin by Sway Lake, owned by Ollie’s grandmother, to search for a long-lost, unopened 1978 recording of the “Sway Lake” track. Ollie is something of a DJ and a collector, who feels that he must have this family heirloom and piece of music history, while Nikolai, a handsome Russian playboy, is just along for the ride.
Enter Ollie’s grandmother Charlie (Mary Beth Peil), throwing a wrench in those plans. She shows up unexpectedly while the boys are staying at the cabin, which they didn’t have legal access to in the first place. Rather than kicking them out, Charlie allows them to stay, but this shouldn’t be taken as love or friendliness – she instead puts them to work because she plans on selling the property.
Both Ollie and Charlie are in a race to find the unopened record, which is thought to be hidden somewhere in the cabin, though with different motives: Ollie wants to add it to his collection as a special gift from his late father, who was also a music collector; Charlie wants it because it’s worth a lot of money having never been opened or played. The differences between Ollie and Charlie are both personal and generational, and we also see them somewhat played out in the beginning as the differences between Ollie and Nikolai.
During his stay at the lake, Ollie falls for a local named Isadora (Isabelle McNally) and borderline stalks her through the first two acts of the film. Charlie, meanwhile, condescends the Cuban housekeeper Marlena (Elizabeth Peña) and flirts with Nikolai. The relationship between Charlie and Nikolai develops steadily, with interest from both parties apparent, but it’s hard to say what either one of them gets from the flirtation or whether it’s even based in real emotion.
Several scenes in “The Song of Sway Lake” could be horror movie scenes if not for the tone of this film. There is a sudden power outage, a mysterious crawl space and a specter in both dreams and hallucinations included in the film, but none of them are presented in a frightening way. Part of this is the atmosphere set by the music – mostly jazz and swing records that probably date back to the 1930s and 1940s.
The plot of this movie is somewhat ambling, but the acting is phenomenal, from both the main and supporting cast. Fair warning to sensitive viewers: the film features both a suicide and plenty of nudity. Otherwise, it’s a fairly standard indie drama with a talented cast and great soundtrack. A final touching note is that “The Song of Sway Lake” was dedicated to, among others, the late Elizabeth Peña, who died in 2014. Music lovers and dramatic film lovers alike will find this film enjoyable for at least one watch, if not more.
Watch the trailer!
“The Song of Sway Lake” is screening at various film festivals around the world. Check the official website for screenings.
Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, Jackie has called Austin home since choosing to attend the University of Texas, where she graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism. She loves spending time with her dog, writing about pop culture in all its forms and spending time with friends – eating, drinking and doing trivia. You can follow Jackie on Twitter and Instagram.