Collectors of all stripes will feel right at home with a storyline whose main component deals with a “perfect” item, too good to ever open (all the better to go to the highest bidder at auction). In this instance the collection consists of records: hundreds upon hundreds of the largely WW II-era LPs and many, many scratchy 78s. The pristine gem being, “The Song of Sway Lake,” recorded in the well-to-do Sway’s enormous lakefront property, currently under threat due to reckless expansion around the lake.
More importantly, those who have ever felt the sudden pain of a family member’s suicide, acerbic tongue of She Who Must Be Obeyed, love at first glance, rationalized thievery or abject despair emanating from all of the above, will readily identify with this narrative that is populated almost completely by broken characters.
Essentially an ensemble piece with one location (the exquisitely captured summer retreat thanks to the unerring cinematography by Eric Lin), it falls to the principals to carry out director-writer (along with co-writer Elizabeth Bull) Ari Gold’s vision and remembrances of how the jazz-big band-infused era still maintains a compelling—at times ghostly—hold on its present-day survivors.
A pair of equally orphaned best buds (Rory Culkin, appropriately troubled and enraged as Ollie Sway; applying an accent that fools no one, Robert Sheehan, nonetheless, ably charms his way through the challenging role of Nikolai), return to the neglected summer digs to steal back the aforementioned record as a kind of homage to Timmy (Jason Brill doing the mystical honours): Ollie’s self-offed dad with an obsession for music.
But lo and behold, the camera-ready Nikolai stumbles upon his pal’s Gran wearing nothing but a smile and soon the tale of lark and larceny switches to a much more intriguing revelation of family secrets then and now. Mary Beth Peil playing the matriarch turns in a far-reaching performance that the likes of Bea Arthur would have been hard-pressed to surpass. And so apt for these days of immigration angst, Elizabeth Peña gives a wonderfully stoic turn to the role of maid/companion, Marlena. Rounding out the seen troupe (Brian Dennehy doing yeoman’s service to voicing Ollie’s long-gone grandpa and war hero, Hal) is the junior Sway’s “purple-haired” love interest, Isadora (Isabelle McNally, doing everything asked of her—even the tantric breathing!).
As engaging as the music is (from Italian arias to “Tiger Rag” and :”Begin the Beguine”, the one serious flaw is—that by journey’s end—all of the characters have so successfully revealed their own inner flaws, that rather than feel sorrow or hope for them, the conclusion must be that they truly do deserve to spend the rest of their days with themselves—no matter what song is being played. For better or for worse, indeed. JWR