The song in The Song of Sway Lake is an actual song, a custom composition for the Sway family that becomes the source of an intergenerational struggle. At an expansive vacation home on the upstate New York lake named for his family, young Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) is determined to find the ultra-rare (and ultra-valuable) 78-inch record of “Sway Lake,” performed by a jazz legend at Ollie’s grandparents’ wedding. Following his father’s suicide (by jumping into the frozen lake), Ollie has fixated on the record, which is part of a large collection kept at the family home.
Ollie brings along his creepy Russian friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) and breaks into the house, but he doesn’t expect that his grandmother Charlie (Mary Beth Peil) will show up soon after, also in mourning (Ollie’s father was her son) and also in search of the elusive record. Director and co-writer Ari Gold handles the conflict between Ollie and Charlie in a meandering, indirect manner, and it’s not entirely clear why the two resent each other so strongly. Ollie alternately broods and attempts to woo local girl Isadora (Isabelle McNally) in a manner that borders on stalking, while Charlie alternately broods and berates her long-suffering housekeeper Marlena (the late Elizabeth Peña, in her final role).
Meanwhile, Nikolai becomes disturbingly obsessed with the Sway family history, in particular Ollie’s long-dead grandfather Hal, a Navy captain who wrote long romantic letters to Charlie (which are dramatized in voiceover by Brian Dennehy). The plot proceeds elliptically, with dreamy interludes featuring naked bodies (possibly Charlie and Hal in the past) swimming in the lake, and some gorgeous scenery courtesy of cinematographer Eric Lin. It’s hard to get a handle on the characters’ motivations, and harder still to care about whether any of them will achieve their goals, especially when they’re all such sour, unpleasant people.
Culkin and Peil do their best to bring some authentic melancholy to their characters’ vague discontent, but they mostly end up pouting and wailing. Sheehan turns the already grating Nikolai into a caricature, and his weird fixation on the Sways never really makes sense. Gold and co-writer Elizabeth Bull aim to convey a sweeping sense of family history, starting with a vintage-style commercial for Sway Lake that showcases the family as wealthy patrons in the 1950s and continuing with the hushed voiceovers from Charlie and Hal, but the story feels constrained, stuck in the musty, closed-off Sway estate.
Set for no apparent reason in 1992, the movie is suffused with nostalgia, but it rarely evokes the feeling of any particular era, instead settling for a general fondness for the “good old days,” whatever that may mean to someone. Ollie and Charlie both pine for some indeterminate time in the past, and there are fleeting moments when the movie captures that sense of regret and longing. Those moments are rare, though, and far more often the movie seems lost in its own haze of ethereal confusion.