Once Upon a Tile

Washington City Paper | June 12, 2006
A decidedly unglobalized sort of household drama, writer-director Doug Sadler’s Swimmers seems to take place today. But it could occur any time after the invention of the Polaroid camera, the film’s most up-to-date prop. There are no Eurostar trains, MD players, or trip-hop tunes—to mention only three of Clean’s period signifiers—in this tiny, elegant movie, which is set entirely on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Packed with images of water, boats, and potential drownings, and featuring an empty pool as a central location, Swimmers needn’t strain for metaphor. The sea—well, the bay—of life is all around it.

The story is as timeless as the Oxford-and-environs setting: 11-year-old swim-team member Emma (Tara Devon Gallagher) has an ear infection that has banished her from the pool and polarized parents Julia (Cherry Jones) and Will (Robert Knott). Will can’t earn the money needed for Emma’s operation by harvesting the Chesapeake’s dwindling crops of oysters and crabs, and he furiously resents Julia’s decision to ask the community for help. Adding to the family tumult, Emma becomes friendly with a brooding young woman, Merrill (Sarah Paulson), whom Julia considers a bad influence. Then Emma’s older brothers, earnest cop Clyde (Shawn Hatosy) and swaggering waterman Mike (Michael Mosley), both develop an interest in Merrill, which culminates in a fistfight.

There’s something of the theatrical genre I call “American screamer” to that plot, which echoes the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Sam Shepard. Yet one of the reasons the film works is that very little screaming actually happens. Sadler achieves a delicacy that seems almost Asian, framing carefully, lighting beautifully, and moving the narrative forward with gentle nudges rather than the shoves more common in big-ticket American cinema. There are no major surprises, and most of the characters—notably unstable, sexually impudent outsider Merrill—are Amerindie stock parts. (Anyone who wonders where they’ve seen Merrill before should check out Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted.) But all of the performances are persuasive, and the director weaves the occasional tantrum into the overall fabric of the story rather than treating each peevish outburst as a divine revelation.

Dismissed by Variety as commercially unviable at its 2005 Sundance premiere, the all-Maryland Swimmers is getting an even smaller rollout than the all-Virginia Crazy Like a Fox. Yet Sadler’s picture is the more artful, intelligent, and believable. The director even encapsulates Crazy Like a Fox’s entire worldview in a single scene, in which Will, working temporarily at a hardware store, is asked for advice by a fledgling exurbanite who wants to build a deck for his country home. Such moments exemplify Sadler’s ability to make something fresh of characters that should be as familiar to indie-cinema veterans as the film’s terrain is to Washington-area beachgoers.

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