Review: 'Swim Little Fish Swim'

This review is based on a screening at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2014.

Early last summer, while inhaling screeners in preparation for New York’s BAMcinemaFest, I happened upon a short film that I liked about as much as any of the slate’s more illustrious features. It was a fifteen-minute piece called “Lydia Hoffman, Lydia Hoffman”, about a young woman (Hannah Gross) who fights with her boyfriend in public and shortly thereafter invites a drifter home for drinks. It was directed by Dustin Guy Defa, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker whose previous film, “Bad Fever,” I had remembered finding somewhat affected and false; imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the revelation of “Lydia Hoffman” was owed precisely to its appropriation of these qualities. It’s quite a coup: The weight and force of the film are derived from the tension between its soft, amiable surfaces (and credit is due here to cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who delivers some of his best work) and the depths of ferocity barely restrained beneath. It was a film that, in the tradition of Cassavetes, seemed to contain within its vigorous sprawl deep pools of anger and sadness and hurt — you could practically taste the venom in every line or laugh.

“Lydia Hoffman” was on my mind for much of Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar’s debut feature “Swim Little Fish Swim,” and for good reason: It features none other than Dustin Guy Defa in the starring role, as Leeward, a sad-sack indie folk musician whose indefatigable integrity seems to cause more harm to those around him than good. What’s more, “Swim Little Fish Swim” evidently shares with its lead performer the desire to smuggle pain in under a pretense of otherwise likeable comic drama, which is to say that, like “Lydia Hoffman”, this is a film that trades in total (and particularly tonal) misdirection. Take, for example, its method of introducing the central players: We open on a close up of Lilas (co-director Bessis), the story’s co-lead, elaborately bound in what appears, at first blush, to either be a kidnapping situation or some kind of ceremonious pre-coital ritual. It soon transpires, of course, that Lilas has been willingly arranged as a painter’s contorted model, and the scene shifts into the register of an outrageous pre-credits gag. Naturally this scene is capped by a requisite (and funny) punchline — the painter instructs Lilas to stay perfectly still before wandering out of the room in search of new paint, leaving our hogtied hero stranded — but what’s really going on here? A young Parisian abroad is quite literally tied up and restrained, left alone and without comfort or a way to escape, and all in the name of artistic ambition. And this just happens to be the subject of the film.

Such a concise expression of theme ought to be appreciated — it betrays an elegance of construction, not to mention a basic foresight of thought, scarcely seen in likeminded indie comedies. Defa’s introduction as Leeward, a few scenes later, is somewhat clunkier both as drama and, unfortunately, as comedy (a recurring joke about a passed-on book of communal advice isn’t funny and rings false for the character), but it nevertheless lays the groundwork for friction better developed in the big picture. We meet Leeward in what we can gather are fairly ordinary circumstances: he has invited a number of guests to his house, which he shares with his overworked wife and three year old daughter, to hang around, talk politics, and jam on ukuleles. (If this description suggests an image of the insufferable hipster, it’s deliberate and, I suspect, more knowing than it lets on — even the beards look like they’re partly in jest.) It isn’t until the return of his wife, Mary (Brooke Bloom), that the film shows its hand a bit: the contrast between Leeward’s lackadaisical, exaggeratedly carefree existence and the exhaustion in which Mary remains perpetually shrouded instantly dispels any sense of the film as typical indie quirk, grounding in realities of class most films of this kind conveniently avoid.

The film’s shrewdest move to this end, in fact, is making Mary both a peripheral character and its emotional foundation: she is the only one who seems resigned to the hardships of responsibility rather than the anxieties of ambition, and it is her mounting impatience with the behaviour of Leeward (and, implicitly, Lilas, who stays with them as a guest) that serves to remind us of the privilege of an loftily artistic lifestyle. “Swim Little Fish Swim” has been compared in some circles to Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” but its major narrative distinction — that the leads share a young child — makes it a film of very different kinds of interests and insights by default: it has something to say about the difficulty of reconciling the romanticized bohemian lifestyle with the less glamorous nuts and bolts of raising a family, earning a living, and making another person happy in a long-term, substantive way. It isn’t exactly cynical, but it is harshly realistic: it suggests that pursuing a creative dream is a luxury afforded only to some and, even then, at great personal, social, and even romantic expense.

There are precedents for this kind of illusion-shattering realism, of course — the film shares with Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” the need to prove how much damage some sense of ‘integrity’ can inflict on other people, and even with “Catcher in the Rye” the reminder that one person’s view of the world rarely coheres completely with the real thing. And in the constant hardships, disappointments, failures and dead-ends it deals out to its characters, who stick to their dreams to the point of alienating everyone close to them, it’s not unlike the more recent “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which also rendered artistic practice as a kind of masochism. But what distinguishes it from all of these cases is the same thing that made “Lydia Hoffman” so unique: that deep well of sadness and pain still rests beneath of apparent sweetness, of an appearance of lightness and affection that makes the hard parts harder to see.

What ultimately holds the film back, I believe, is its tendency to err too far on the side of that sweetness — it indulges too often in the hallmarks of the mediocre indie, the stuff a press release might call ‘quirk’, to level its more substantial points with real seriousness. Mary and Leeward’s three year old daughter, Maggie (Olivia Durling Costello), is frequently the source of much wide-eyed fawning from her parents and the filmmakers alike, an understandable desire but, alas, a misguided one; it is only when Maggie’s innocence is threatened by her parents (in a brief but quite powerful seen involving the death of a pet fish) that the somewhat precious quality of her presence becomes fruitful thematically. And though it’s difficult to fault a pair of first-time filmmakers for wanting to end their feature on a note of spirit-raising satisfaction, the effect proves a regrettable, if not catastrophic, miscalculation — too much is at stake in the twin failures of the leads to be compromised by a flourish of emotional gratification, and the moment they chose doesn’t feel true to the ideas they’ve been working through elsewhere. Maturity, in this case, needs conviction, even at the risk of depressing the audience. But we need to hear the truth even if it hurts.

SCORE: 6.8/10