Tribeca: ‘Swimming Home’ is an Intriguing, Perplexing Character Study

Tribeca: ‘Swimming Home’ is an Intriguing, Perplexing Character Study
Tribeca Festival

Opening one’s home to a stranger can be seen as an act of generosity, but it also presents a calculated risk. Someone may come claiming the best intentions and have ulterior motives which put everyone who is already within the home in danger. There are those who are inherently more trustworthy because they know that they can adapt if things don’t turn out as they expect, but that still leaves plenty to chance. Swimming Home tells a story of two people who have been through a lot and now live quite comfortably, and see little issue with allowing someone they know nothing about to stay with them.

Isabel (Mackenzie Davis) and Joe (Christopher Abbott) return to their holiday villa with their visiting professor friend Laura (Nadine Labaki) and find a naked woman bathing in their pool. Kitti (Ariana Labed) says she has come to meet their driver, who is finding her a place to stay, and Isabel tells her there’s no need to go anywhere. As she makes herself at home, Kitti befriends Isabel and Joe’s teenage daughter Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills) and begins making Joe uncomfortable as he worries what her true motives may be.

Swimming Home is an adaptation of Deborah Levy’s 2011 novel of the same name. While its setting is one of sunny Mediterranean luxury, there is a good deal of baggage that each of the characters brings in with them. Isabel is a celebrated war photographer who is far away from the battlefields she typically visits, relaxed and with her guard down since she’s not at work. Joe is quiet and generally moody, less than eager to discuss his published poems or the childhood he escaped in Bosnia that has clearly left him with scars. There’s also a history with this couple and Laura that isn’t much covered during this film’s 99 minutes.

It’s easy to become enchanted and intrigued by Swimming Home, particularly by Kitti, who doesn’t seem to adhere to any sets of rules or general politeness. After taking off all her clothes and enjoying the pool before meeting any of the villa’s current inhabitants, she then indulges in the feast prepared that evening, eating with her hands and giving no thought to common decency or curbing her behavior because she’s a guest in someone else’s home. Nina is clearly taken with her and Isabel is drawn to something about her as well, and only Joe and Laura feel that there’s a suspicious air to her entire presence.

The first half of this film features slow-moving scenes with more rapid conversation as these characters merely skim the surface of their true thoughts and how they feel about each other. As it reaches its end, however, it departs from a literal narrative and takes some questionable turns, reminiscent in some ways of past Mackenzie and Abbott films like Always Shine and Black Bear. Yet what’s meant to be taken as is and what’s meant as a metaphor or representation isn’t always clear, making for an equally captivating and frustrating experience for those simply seeking straightforward answers this film has no intention of giving.

Though its conclusion may leave some confused or displeased, this film does still boast strong visuals that make for an alluring experience, portraying a landscape that anyone would want to visit even if the people within it feel treacherous. Davis offers a mix of bubbliness and prestige that works well, while Abbott is dependably subdued. Labaki, however small her role may be, is a welcome presence, and Hannan-Mills shows great promise as well. It’s Labed, who has previously worked with filmmakers like Joanna Hogg and Yorgos Lanthimos, is the true breakout, an enticing figure whose unreadability sets the distinct tone for this haunting film.

Grade: B-

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Swimming Home makes its North American premiere in the International Narrative Competition at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

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