SXSW FILM 2013
By Don Simpson | March 19, 2013
Directors: Ruben Amar, Lola Bessis
Writers: Ruben Amar, Lola Bessis
Starring: Dustin Guy Defa, Lola Bessis, Brooke Bloom, Anne Consigny, Olivia Durling Costello, Makeda Declet, Paul Manza
Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) is a throwback to a much different era in New York City history. An anti-Capitalist musician, Leeward prefers to do what he loves rather than earn money. Recording or selling his music would be selling out, so he prefers to just hang around a tiny Chinatown apartment jamming on homemade instruments with his friends. Leeward’s wife, Mary (Brooke Bloom), works as the sole breadwinner of their household while Leeward stays at home with their young daughter (Olivia Durling Costello). There is such an imbalance in Mary and Leeward’s relationship that they cannot even agree on their daughter’s name — I imagine that it must be pretty confusing for a child to be called Maggie by her mom and Rainbow by her dad, yet Maggie/Rainbow seems remarkably adjusted.
The already fragile state of Mary and Leeward’s relationship is pressed further by Leeward’s communal philosophy of taking in random lost souls and allowing them to crash in their living room. One such couch-surfing transient is a local bartender, Shiraz (Makeda Declet); and through Shiraz’s connection, a 19-year old French artist, Lilas (Lola Bessis), begins to sleep in their living room as well.
As a fellow struggling artist, Lilas quickly forms a connection with Leeward. The two begin to spend a lot of time together, making Mary visibly jealous. Lilas and Leeward motivate each other to continue on their respective righteous paths of putting creativity at the forefront of their lives and not giving into external pressures. While Lilas fights to extend the length of her visa long enough to complete a project for an art gallery, Leeward must continue to fight the good fight, refusing to give in to Mary’s desperate pleas for him to record a commercial jingle.
For Mary, happiness is settling down in a suburban house of their very own; but, of course, they could never afford a mortgage on her nursing salary alone. This is where the commercial jingle fits in. What Mary perceives as an easy way for Leeward to make a lot of money in a very short period of time, Leeward sees as giving in to the man. The problem is, they are both too focused on their own goals to pay attention to what the other one is actually doing. The financial hardships of the modern world may weigh heavily upon Mary, but Leeward is totally negligent of her stress and aggravation.
Whereas communication and compromise are the standard keystones of marriage, Mary and Leeward continue to avoid both at all costs. They are incredibly different people, yet they are intent upon forcing each other to abide by their own personal philosophies of life. All the while, Lilas’ mother (Anne Consigny) repeatedly tells Lilas what to do with her life.
As the title suggests, Swim Little Fish Swim is about the importance of giving loved ones the freedom and support to do what they want to do. The more Lilas and Leeward are held back, the more they rebel; the more they rebel, the more frictional the relationships with their loved ones become. Regardless, writers-directors Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar thankfully do not make Lilas and Leeward out to be artistic martyrs. Instead, they are equally at fault for refusing to take the advice of others out of sheer stubbornness. Always wanting to get things their own way, Leeward comes off as being passive-aggressive, while Lilas seems whiny and spoiled. Still, it is difficult not to take sides — dependent upon our own personal histories, of course. I, for one, feel a certain kinship with Leeward. Like Leeward, I often daydream of living in a world in which everyone can do what they want with no financial constraints. I, however, realize that my daydreams are impossible in our modern society; but Leeward lives out his daydreams in the timeless bubble of their apartment, totally oblivious to the reality of the world around him.
Besides the spectacular cast — I could not imagine this film with leads other than Dustin Guy Defa, Lola Bessis and Brooke Bloom — Brett Jutkiewicz (cinematographer), Yvette Granata (production designer) and Jared Martin (art director) deserve a hell of a lot of credit for creating the magically vivid little world of Swim Little Fish Swim. The intimately observational perspective and the wandering randomness of the scenarios lends the film a naturalistic-yet-surrealist vibe; additionally, experimental filmmaker Nathan Punwar contributes stunning Super 8 video footage that is artfully sprinkled throughout the narrative. Equally influenced by New York independent filmmakers of the 1970s and French New Wave directors of the 1960s, Bessis and Amar develop a unique cinematic language that is both gorgeously stylistic and intensely dramatic. Then, in a perfect mesh of sound and vision, Toys and Tiny Instruments provides a soundtrack that works perfectly for Leeward’s persona.
By immersing themselves in the independent film community in New York, Bessis and Amar clearly thrive off of the creativity and experimentation that is going on around them. They also bring an outsider perspective into the mix, as Swim Little Fish Swim is a novel view of New York City from a European vantage point. It is as if we are observing New York through Leeward’s looking glass, not as a bustling metropolis of commerce but as a colorful playground propagated by absurd personalities. This strange, hyper-real view of the city makes Swim Little Fish Swim one of those special little films that is utterly impossible not to fall in love with.
(Also, check out our SXSW interview with Lola Bessis, Ruben Amar and Brooke Bloom.)