SXSW 2013 Review: SWIM LITTLE FISH SWIM Is A Sincere Look At The Stubbornness Of Artists

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
The opening moment of Ruben Amar & Lola Bessis' Swim Little Fish Swim (his feature directorial debut, her directorial and feature acting debut) finds Bessis in a rather precarious position: hogtied and posing for a grizzly-bearded naked painter. This moment clues us in quite quickly and literally to just how wayward yet stuck Bessis' character Lilas is in her life. It also says a lot about the stubbornness, resilience, naivety and narrow-minded absurdity and idealism of artists; in other words, a veritable palette of anxieties and malaise that largely come from the fears of being seen or being unseen.

Taking matters into her own hands, Lilas sets out across the vibrant and colorful streets of NYC. With a portable projector in hand, no home and just a few days left on her visa, she must either find a public gallery that will show her experimental film work (and thus getting an extension on her visa) or else use the plane ticker back to Paris her famous artist mother has purchased for her.

With the hopes of being featured at a future PS1 show,  Lilas find herself on the couch of Leeward and Mary, and their 4-year old daughter -- who is called Rainbow by her dad and Maggie by her mom. Leeward is a stay-at-home-parent and musician while the overworked Mary shoulders much of the familial responsibilities as a nurse. She dreams of a house in the suburbs, while her husband tinkers with his musical inventions and spouts about the dangers of capitalism, wielding the so-called only copy of an idealized book passed down through generations of liberal thinkers. Now yes, I know what you must be thinking... a young french woman staying on the couch of a couple with a wavering understanding of each other, it must be that kind of film... but it isn't. As much as Lilas and Leeward inspire each other during these uncertain times in their lives, Swim Little Fish Swim isn't interested in pitting its characters in messy showdowns based around adulterous acts. The film is, in large part about how we can coexist and how to be honest when you're more than a little scared and a little confused, and yes a little stuck in your ways.

The scenario might not be too far off the beaten path of indie flicks, but it is the people that Amar and Bessis choose to populate this world with that really makes it grounded in a sincere and poignant vulnerability. Dustin Guy Defa as Leeward has the gawky gait and starry-eyed look of a dreamer and idealist. Despite some slightly questionable choices near the beginning of the film, Leeward is a good father, who adores his daughter, despite his penchant to wander. I recently said to a friend that it felt like I was ten years old two times over and that's Leeward in a nutshell. A man emerging from his twenties that perhaps felt like his teens, he's not apathetic, but indecisive; not frivolousness, but fanciful. Brooke Bloom as Mary works herself to exhaustion just to provide for this family. Just how much she does, and just how much of the grown-up she has to be, is put into jarring perspective when a visit to Leeward's parents for Sabbath shows that they, and his grandmother, are more set in their ways as he is. While they won't budge, something stirs in Leeward, some larger desire, something beyond what he has and what he's done. It's a sense of the true self rather than the everyday self.

Lilas is on a similar path as Leeward's. The difference being that Lilas is far more set on showing her work to others, while Leeward won't even share his music with his wife. When the promise of the public show falls apart, Lilas is all but broken and bitter and ready to give up. Anne Consigny, who may be best known to international audiences from her role in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, plays the small but pivotal role of Lilas' mother.

What makes Swim Little Fish Swim worth paying attention to is in how vibrant the film is when it basically deals with people in various states of melancholy. It's never a pretty picture but it's always a pretty picture thanks to the warm and dreamy lensing by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, Amar and Bessis' gentleness with the material plus the finely nuanced performances from Bloom and Defa, who present a rather funny and horribly awkward dynamic as a couple. It's also worth a mention the no small feat of the smaller Olivia Durling Costello's turn as their daughter. Setting aside the quotient amount of adorable that comes with being 4 years old, Durling Costello brings a vulnerability and curiosity that at times mirrors her father's own journey.

While not striking any relative new ground in filmmaking, Swim Little Fish Swim doesn't need to strive for this when it succeeds in its humanistic storytelling. A lot is said and unsaid when it comes to the relationship between parent and child or husband and wife, and the need for honest communication in art and life, which, of course, one realizes has no real separation. It is in these moments wherein the film shares its most charming and enduring truths.   
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