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‘Swallow’ Is An Exquisite Indie Gem
Streaming title serves up quiet tale of female empowerment
Monday, January 4, 2021
"Wonder Woman 1984" and "Mulan" were films designed to showcase strong women. But these big budget, heavily promoted studio pictures proved disappointing. The indie gem "Swallow," however, offers a quiet and unexpected tale of female empowerment.
Before I get to my review of "Swallow" I want to discuss "Wonder Woman 1984" because it is the disappointment of that film that makes me want to sing the praise of this independent film even more loudly. In fact, I'd like to point out that it is independent and foreign cinema — not Hollywood — that has made this one of the best and most exciting years for women in film.
A quick note on 'Wonder Woman 1984'
"Wonder Woman 1984" ("WW84") was one of the most eagerly awaited films of 2020. It was the follow up to DC's highly successful and well received "Wonder Woman" and it featured a rare female superhero and the even rarer female director. So, much hope was riding on that film on multiple levels. At one point it was looked to as the film to bring audiences back into theaters and then as a film to jump start the box office. It was also meant to be the film that could build on the success of "Wonder Woman" and prove that female driven and female helmed projects could be good box office.
But the Wonder Woman that arrived streaming on HBO Max on Christmas Day was less than wonderful. The main problem was that Wonder Woman did not seem in control of her own sequel. Instead of being a powerful superhero driving her own story, she was at the mercy of a script that seemed to say Diana Prince needs a man to feel complete. The story involves bringing back Steve Trevor, who sacrificed himself in the first film, in the body of some hapless dude. Diana is so blinded by love that she can't even see how wrong it is to just erase someone's identity so she can get her one true love back.
Why is it that Hollywood thinks women are somehow incomplete without a man? And this is on top of a multitude of other problems that include too much CGI (and some that made me think of "Cats," which is not good at all); a 1984 setting that makes no sense and and has no sense of the time period; a wasted Amazon competition tat looks more like it's out of "Harry Potter;" and a script that is just a mess. The only highlights is Pedro Pascal as a not terribly interesting bad guy and a post credit stinger that brings a smile.
A stellar year for women in indie films
"WW84" had a huge budget, studio backing, a major promotional campaign and all that feels so wasted. But what it also does is make the creative successes of independent and foreign films stand out in bold relief. The studios' two biggest femme-centric films — "WW84" and "Mulan" were a bust but there are an amazing collection of independent and foreign films showcasing a breathtaking array of female characters and female creators.
Older actresses got showcases in "The Truth" (Catherine Denueve), "French Exit" (Michelle Pfeiffer), "The Life Ahead" (Sophia Loren), and "Lucky Grandma" (Tsai Chin). Women directed some of the year's most acclaimed films from Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland" and Kelly Reichardt's "First Cow" to the directorial debuts of Regina King ("One Night in Miami") and Emerald Fennell ("Promising Young Woman"). And there were just a bounty of fascinating females to be found in films such as "Possessor," "The Swerve," "She Dies Tomorrow," "Shirley," "The Invisible Man," "Lost Girls," "Miss Juneteenth," "The Forty-Year-Old Version," "Blow the Man Down," "Spontaneous," and "Pieces of a Woman." What was so thrilling is that is was a year of wondrous diversity and of women just not fitting into any mold.
Which brings me to "Swallow." The film came out briefly in cinemas in March and is now available for rent or streaming on Showtime. The fact that "Swallow" has not been seen by more people is a shame because it is an exquisitely crafted film with an unconventional and unexpected heroine driving the story.
Hunter (Haley Bennett), film's protagonist, is like a porcelain doll kept on the shelf by her husband and his wealthy family. She’s something to trot out for display but god forbid she try to express herself. One night at a ritzy restaurant she dares to recount a story and before she's a couple lines in, her father-in-law interrupts or more accurately he simply talks over her as if she were not there. The silenced Hunter is once again relegated to the sidelines where she is suddenly drawn to the ice cubes in her glass and decides to noisily chew and swallow them.
So begins Hunter’s strange obsession with swallowing objects. After the ice she turns to marbles, thumbtacks and more. The disorder is known as pica and for Hunter it becomes the only thing she can control.
The feature debut of writer-director Carlos Mirabella-Davis plays out like a Hitchcock thriller with Haley Bennett’s Hunter recalling Joan Fontaine’s delicate performances in "Rebecca" and "Suspicion." Like Fontaine, Bennett has a demure beauty but seems to retreat into the background, fearful of drawing attention to herself. Yet both actresses and the characters they play ultimately display a surprising strength or endurance.
Mirabella-Davis says the story was inspired by his grandmother who used OCD rituals as a way to create order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in. The film feels deeply personal as it keeps everything from Hunter’s point of view. The production design from Erin Magill is gorgeous and defines Hunter's world with terrifying perfection. The cinematography by Katelin Arizmendi also captures Hunter's environment with clinical clarity. And it's all wrapped up nicely by Joe Murphy's editing and Nathan Halpern's score.
"Swallow" acknowledges that these are first world problems yet it also recognizes that Hunter is in desperate need of relief and worthy of our compassion. Her quiet rebellion is inspiring and her journey is rendered in exquisite detail by Mirabella-Davis. I find this small indie film so much more satisfying than the CGI inflated "Wonder Woman 1984," and ironically it feels much more driven by its female character.
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