At this year’s FrightFest, I seemed to see ten or twenty films which began with folks arriving at holiday homes on remote lakes … and then suffering various persecutions from witches, ghosts, psychos and the like. It’s almost jarring to find a movie with that opening which then develops in a different way, though director Ari Gold – who also co-wrote with Elizabeth Bull – does make Sway Lake a haunted location, with several generations of complicated past tragedies and joys hanging over the picturesque water. It’s a leisurely, slightly unfocused indie relationships drama, with good performances and a lot of nuance – though it’s low-key approach makes it feel a little too respectable. An actual ghost might have perked things up – though, technically, we do get a brief apparition from one of the lake’s dead.
In the 1940s, Sway Lake was the site of the great love of war hero Hal Sway (voiced by Brian Dennehy) and his bride Charlie (Mary Beth Peil), which inspired a jazzman named Tweed McKay (John Grant), one-time lover of Cole Porter, to write and record a song for their wedding (later a huge hit for the Andrews Sisters-style Eden Sisters). In 1992, Hal’s record-collecting grandson Ollie (Rory Culkin) shows up at the lake house, skulking around with his handsome but shifty Russian pal Nikolai (Robert Sheehan), intent on stealing that valuable and never-played 78, hidden from Charlie by her recently suicided son Timmy (Jason Brill), who suffered from living his life in the shadow of this story. Charlie airily orders her maid Marlena (the late Elizabeth Peña) to find the missing disc so she can sell it herself, seemingly to fund a NIMBY campaign against the development of the lake as a tourist destination – which the starved-for-en-economy locals are quite keen on. Ollie and Nikolai clash with local youths who have a noisy jet-ski business, and Ollie starts mooning over purple-haired townie Isadora (Isabelle McNally), whom Charlie pointedly and cruelly reveals is really called Lisa. There’s bonding and rivalry in the bromance story, with Ollie – actual heir to the estate – acting like a jittery interloper, while his penniless pal starts to seem more and more at home.
A lot happens – with Nikolai getting his gigolo moves on, either in sharp vintage suits or the buff (Robert Sheehan is naked in this film as often as Nastassja Kinski was in Cat People) and working his own agenda, multi-generation subplots simmering but never quite coming to the boil, and heavy symbolic weight placed on that sealed recording (it’s identified as sturdy vinyl, but probably ought to be fragile shellac). That the golden past might not have been as idyllic as it’s been mythologised is hinted at by Hal’s journal entries about the War in the Pacific and Nikolai’s reminiscences about the Russian experience of WWII, but also the fact that Hal and Charlie let their wedding gift album stay sealed to accrue value while the commercial cover version of the song seeped into the world. Of course, given the set-up, it’s inevitable that the record will be found and played, losing much of its collectible value but affording the opportunity for a lecture on the superiority of analog memories over mythical perfection. Among the film’s best features are musical pastiches composed and arranged by the director’s brother Ethan Gold – the title song is convincing and evocative in all its versions. It also has – and this isn’t really faint praise – a truly excellent set of end credits, with the key cast and crew named on vintage record labels.