The Song of Sway Lake (Photo: The Orchard)

★★½ (out of four)
STARS Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan

The title The Song of Sway Lake suggests a lyrical sort of motion picture, the sort that might center around a siren, a mermaid, or some other mythical lady of the lake. None ever materialize, but no matter, since the film provides its own ethereal form of lyricism. It’s this easygoing ambience that largely saves a ragged screenplay that operates only in fits and starts.

Rory Culkin stars as Ollie Sway, a socially awkward kid who returns to the lakeside family estate following the suicide of his father. With his more extroverted Russian pal Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) in tow, Ollie plans to locate and swipe a valuable LP that was recorded specifically for the family decades earlier. A music lover like his late father, Ollie believes he should be the one who takes possession of the album. His grandmother Charlie (Mary Beth Peil) doesn’t agree — because she harbors little sentiment or sympathy for Ollie, she hopes to be the one to locate the record so that she may turn around and sell it.

Written and directed by Ari Gold (who shared scripting duties with Elizabeth Bull), The Song of Sway Lake is best when it focuses on the strained relationship between Ollie and Charlie, with the tension between them perpetually palpable. The movie also benefits from its creators’  love for — and understanding of — music and those who appreciate it. The featured songs were written expressly for the picture by Ari’s twin brother Ethan Gold, and it’s a testament to his talent that these new tunes sound like they indeed were created in the 1930s. It also makes sense that the best scene in the film is the one in which Ollie fingers through an old record collection and notes the ratings given to the various albums by either himself or his dad.

Other portions of the film are on less sturdy ground. The role of Nikolai is initially a rich one, with the character getting off some amusing lines (“Cupid was weird. He was a naked baby. Made me uncomfortable.”). One could almost picture Nikolai as a distant (if more aggressive) cousin to the innocent Balki Bartokomous, the lovable immigrant played by Bronson Pinchot in the popular ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers, were it not for the creepy turn the character takes during the second half of the film. It’s a development that never feels credible, and a last-minute rally to again place him in our good graces proves to be especially ungainly. Even less believable than this character about-face is the entire relationship between Ollie and Isadora (Isabelle McNally), a neighbor whose only purpose appears to be to give our hapless hero an unlikely insta-girlfriend.

Peil delivers an excellent performance as the seemingly aloof elder who harbors her own deep well of emotions, and there’s a nice turn from Elizabeth Peña as Charlie’s long-suffering maid (this marks her final screen credit, as she passed away in 2014). Cinematographer Eric Lin also deserves kudos, as his lensing captures the lake in all its shimmery splendor.

The Song of Sway Lake might occasionally hit a false note, but between its music and its mood, there should be enough here to sway audiences into giving it the benefit of the doubt.

(The Song of Sway Lake is available for rental on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and YouTube.)

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