The Song of Sway Lake is a curious little indie flick about nostalgia and melancholia, both of which afflict the film's three principal characters: Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin), a music collector who returns to the upstate New York lake named for his family, after his father's suicide, in pursuit of a rare recording; Nikolai (Robert Sheehan), Ollie's bombastic Russian chum who becomes enamored of the Sway Lake aristocracy; and Charlie Sway (stage actor Mary Beth Peil), Ollie's grandmother, who yearns for an earlier, quieter time. The film opens Friday at Tower City in what will likely be a one-week engagement.
During my viewing, I'm afraid the only nostalgia I experienced was nostalgia for the time before I started watching. Very specific settings with very specific histories often make for interesting stories, but nostalgia by rich people for what was basically a Wall Street summer resort tends not to inspire much sympathy in an audience.
Of the individual plot lines, Nikolai's is the most interesting. For the film's first 15 minutes, he and Ollie drink their way through the Sway Lodge's supply of hard liquor and behave like the nihilistic 90s college boys they are. (The film takes place in the summer of '92.) But as Ollie hunts for the record and pursues a purple-haired girl named Isadora (Isabelle McNally), Nikolai becomes obsessed with the Sway family history and develops an infatuation with Charlie. Actor Robert Sheehan (who will appear in December's Mortal Instruments) has a sense of swagger and mischief that doesn't always comport with the rest of the ensemble but is usually exciting to watch.
Directed by Ari Gold, Sway Lake features some stylish elements. Letters between Charlie and her deceased husband Hal serve as a kind of voice-over at the outset: It's a novelistic gimmick that introduces Ollie and Nikolai effectively. Later, though, there are weird and vaguely surrealist flights of fancy that complicate the matter of perspective. From whose point of view is the story supposedly told? The music that dominates the film, however, was soulful and original (directed by Ari's twin brother Ethan). Piano music and other old-timey hits that crackle from the film's record players are Sway Lake's perfect musical correlatives.
The minor character of Marlena, a maid burdened with Sway family secrets, is portrayed by Elizabeth Pena, Sofia Vergara's mother in Modern Family. Pena died in 2014 and the film is dedicated, in part, to her.