Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger came for the cover, but stayed for the movie.
Life is about keeping your head above water.
The Big Bad Swim is the kind of film that independent film junkies live for. Such people frequent film festivals to see movies that speak outside of the mainstream Hollywood venue. Such films are typically quieter, more intimate, and often more incisive and quirky than typical big-budget fare. With fewer checks and balances in place to pull independent films towards the median, they are often less successful. Yet indie fans also visit the festivals for another reason: to catch the next big actor and, in rare cases, catch the next big movie. Many indie directors dream of a crossover hit, a movie made on the director's own terms that gets picked up for national distribution. The Big Bad Swim is probably not going to be picked up for national distribution. However, if you saw it, you caught a glimpse of two potential Next Big Actors. You also saw a film that keeps pace with most big-budget comedies. It is an impressive debut by any standard.
Facts of the Case
Noah Owens (Jeff Branson, Four Lane Highway) is a despondent athlete who teaches Adult Swim classes at the rec center. Contrary to what the DVD cover would have you believe, Adult Swim classes do not entail buxom women copulating madly in a pool. Rather, they're an opportunity for adults who never learned how to swim to do so in a structured, supportive environment.
Though he's depressed, Noah takes his responsibility seriously and helps his charges overcome their fear and awkwardness in the water. Two of the members are Amy Pierson (Paget Brewster, Criminal Minds), a high-school teacher on the brink of divorce, and Jordan Gallagher (Jess Weixler, Teeth), a casino dealer and stripper. The two bond with their quirky fellow swim class members, become friends, and start hanging out together outside of class. Now if only Jordan's brother and his creepy stalker friend Hunter (Ricky Ullman, Driftwood) would stop filming her all the time.
We may be nearing the point where the label "indie film" doesn't suggest second tier. There will never be a way to equalize the massive budgetary advantages that studios enjoy, but independent films are becoming more sophisticated and landing better actors, directors, and crew. The Big Bad Swim may be an exception to the rule, but I prefer to see it as a yardstick for how good a first-time effort can be.
Director Ishai Setton did not set himself an easy task: The Big Bad Swim is filmed largely in and around the water with a large cast. He not only overcomes the challenges of shooting in a pool, he embraces them and delivers several memorable, perfectly composed shots. One such shows the feet and lower bodies of the class members entering the water from a worm's eye view, bubbles cascading up legs that somehow express the trepidation of the people attached to them. Another shot is set half in and half out of the water, with the legs of one person diffracted to seem like the legs of another. Finally, there are several quiet shots of people floating that settle the film and give it a reflective tone.
Setton proves himself capable with these scenes, but the real success of The Big Bad Swim is carefully written characters brought to life through pitch-perfect performances.
By now you've probably heard more about Paget Brewster than you would have when The Big Bad Swim was cast. As the official site proclaims with glee, "Paget Brewster is everywhere these days." Whether playing Birdgirl on Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law or Emily Prentiss on Criminal Minds, Brewster has cemented herself in Hollywood. Her performance in The Big Bad Swim shows why: Amy Pierson is beautiful without being affected, dry without being aloof, and vulnerable without relinquishing her strength. Brewster is sophisticated and nuanced as she takes Amy through several emotional hurdles.
Her partner in crime is Jess Weixler, a piercingly beautiful blonde with an ethereal quality that makes her fun to watch. I predict and hope that Hollywood will embrace Weixler. Her character Jordan is enigmatic but down-to-earth at the same time. We're never privy to her hidden pain; we simply see its effects around the corners of her mouth and eyes.
That's one area where The Big Bad Swim excels: it rarely spells everything out. When Jordan comes back from a frat party visibly shaken, we're unsure whether it is an emotional release after maintaining control or whether she was manhandled. The depth of the characterizations is such that we don't need to rely on the outcomes of manufactured mysteries to enjoy the flow of the film. Certain subplots that never get resolved seem suspiciously like dropped balls. For example, Jordan's brother and Hunter spend most of the movie making a "biography" of Jordan, but we never see the edited footage or the payoff for their tiresome antics. The closest thing to a payoff is when Jordan watches her brother editing the film and having a secret moment of emotional reaction. I don't know what the reaction was or why she was having it, and suspect the preconceived conclusion to the surreptitious filming plotline must have been canned for some reason. But this open-ended quality might have been planned all along and doesn't mar the film significantly. It is far richer to set up generic mysteries and ignore them than to spell everything out.
Though there is romance and carefully constrained eroticism in The Big Bad Swim (at least, I can't help a certain fascination with the locker room scenes, even though they are as chaste and non-exploitative as can be), it is not a romantic comedy. It's just the regular kind of comedy, one that takes a welcome cue from Judd Apatow and eschews embarrassment in favor of dignity. The characters are put into situations that could be frantic and degrading, but that become gently, darkly funny. In an attempt to break free of his depression, Noah digs out an old porn DVD and tries to masturbate, but his Shih Tzu won't allow it. Such scenes are not gut-busting. Yet as they mount, The Big Bad Swim provides a slow roast of your funny bone.
The Big Bad Swim is clearly gunning for Hollywood recognition. Aside from a slick, sexy, wholly misrepresentative cover, the DVD features a DTS and Dolby 5.1 track, feature commentary, and slew of extras. The menus are slickly animated, as is the official site. The features are precisely what you'd expect (the blooper reel is cheesy fun, the P.A. segment is a throwaway, the making of is vaguely self-congratulatory) but done with quality and style. Cinematographer's Video Journal is a half-serious, half-humorous look at what goes into cinematography and is well worth a look. The commentary track is a noble, amiable effort that quickly devolves into play-by-play. All told, the extras package is impressive and thorough.
If The Big Bad Swim is a transparent attempt to break into big Hollywood, that doesn't mitigate the joys of its marvelous comedic bent and engaging cast. It has pacing problems and some mishandled side plots, but The Big Bad Swim will still leave you with the warm, pleasant glow that a good comedy should provide.
The Big Bad Swim is innocent on the counts of skinny dipping and disturbing the peace.
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