Grief is something different to all of us. It makes us into strangers, even from those we love best - even from those who are grieving the same loss we are. It creates both distance and closeness, often in the same short span of time. It's mysterious and unknowable; we can't recall the specifics of the sensation once time has dulled the sharpest edges.
Sarah Adina Smith's The Midnight Swim examines the way three half-sisters grieve the loss of their mother. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) loved Spirit Lake, the seemingly bottomless, supposedly haunted body of water beyond their home. One day she climbed in for one of her deep-water dives, and never emerged. Her loss is a tragedy and it's also exactly right: “I think it’s fitting. She loved the lake so much. It’s where she’d want to be.” Her three daughters return to her home to mourn her: dreamy, playful Isa (Aleksa Palladino), responsible Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) and June (Lindsay Burdge), soft and withdrawn, a little hazy around the lines. June is the "family archivist," who films every interaction these three sisters, and their childhood friend Josh (Ross Partridge), share with one another, capturing backwards glances and revealing sighs when Isa, Annie and Josh forget that she's there.
In a very specific sense, The Midnight Swim is a found footage movie. The only film we see comes from June's POV, but glances and sighs aren't the only thing she's catching. Midnight Swim is much more stylish and elegant than the genre implies, sun-dappled and misty, catching the way light leaps and water distorts, as delicate and meaningful and indescribably sad as the beautiful birds the sisters keep finding, dead, on their porch. Amelia was preoccupied with the legend of the Seven Sisters, seven girls who, one by one, dropped into the boundless depths of Spirit Lake and never resurfaced. Each sister turned into a bird, and flew into the sky, where they became stars. If you summon the seventh sister, she will pull you under, a mandatory sorority.
Isa, Annie, June and Josh drunkenly, jokingly summon the seventh sister on their first night together, and the rest of their time home is warped by mystery, as mild but increasingly inexplicable events begin to affect the three sisters. But far more compelling and dangerous are the emotional waters these women are navigating. They each knew a different version of their mother, in part depending on how Amelia felt about their different fathers - especially the oldest, Annie, whose relationship to Amelia was fraught with guilt and distance. She was expected to take care of Isa and June, an expectation that is still weighing on Annie all these years later, now that they've all grown and Amelia is no longer there to scold her. Meanwhile Isa is forging a romantic relationship with Josh, though Annie was the sister who had a crush on him growing up.
But by virtue of her all-present camera, the sister to whom we feel the closest is June. June is frail and quiet and can only confront conflict through that distancing lens, keeping herself safe from the heavy emotion that darkens the corners of this old, familiar house. She tells Annie and Isa that she believes in re-incarnation, and that Amelia did too. This, and the story of the seven sisters, are further ways that June protects herself, defending her heart against the reality of grief with pretty legends that free her in a way Isa and Annie cannot be free.
This relationship among the three sisters is The Midnight Swim's greatest strength - Palladino, Lafleur and Burdge are so believably family. They are familiar and comfortable and angry with each other in that way that only family can be. They speak a language they all know and that we can only interpret through June, the strange cypher who makes us audience to her perspective. They process their feelings about their mother by wearing her clothes and adopting her manner of speaking (that peculiar pattern of speech we all recognize as singular to Beth Grant). They laugh and cry and sing and fight, and though the mystery surrounding them - possibly supernatural, possibly nothing more than coincidence met with heightened emotions - is engaging, we forget all about it when Isa, Annie and June are doing no more than being together, loving each other in spite of the guilt and grief and resentment, that greatest mystery that is the unconditional love of family.