Movie Review: “The Song of Sway Lake”


“It’s the crackle I love,” the record collector narrates to his son, who shares his passion. “We can disappear into it.”

That’s where “The Song of Sway Lake” lives — an elegiac, playful wallow in the crackle of pre-vinyl shellac nostalgia, summer romance and lost glory.

Bit actor and sometime director Ari Gold and his co-writer/collaborator Elizabeth Bull conjure up a warm, wistful movie about nostalgia itself — its traps, and its rewards.

Sway Lake once belonged to the Sway family. Wife Charlie and piano playing war hero Hal kept it as an exclusive resort for the famous and well-heeled. It even spawned a Swing Era pop hit.

But Hal died and the land around the lake slipped away. By 1992, development and Jetskis were pushing in on Crane Point Lodge, and depressed heir Tim Sway (Jason Brill) drowned himself in the lake that winter.

By the time summer arrives, all that’s left to do is sell the place. Tim’s record-hoarding son Oliver (Rory Culkin) and his fellow “vagabond” Nikolai (Robert Sheehan of “Geostorm”) drift in so that Ollie can find that crisp, unopened one-off pressing of the original 78 rpm record of “Sway Lake,” sung by its composer. He plans to steal it and keep this “record that cannot be sold at any price.”

“Both believe that stealing is moral when it’s in the name of love,” or so we’re told.

The guys rummage through a record-hoarder’s paradise, and cheerfully ransack the place as they do (plenty of alcohol is on hand). But as they search, in vain, for the valuable 78, they feud with the develop-or-die locals, Ollie is smitten by Isadora (Isabelle McNally), “the girl with the purple hair,” and his widowed grandmother (Mary Beth Peil of “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Good Wife”) and her long-suffering housekeeper (Elizabeth Peña) show up.

That complicates the hunt for the record they want to steal and sends Nikolai into a swooning reverie for all things Sway.

Nikolai is what we call “A Screenwriter’s Russian” — all poetic impulsiveness, pranks and free-spirited nudity and manly pursuits — fist fighting, motors and “qvality vomen!”

“He’s excitable,” Ollie explains. “There’s a lot of freedom here.”

“Americans would rather organize music than hear it,” Nikolai philosophizes. “In Russia, we dance!”

Lost in Hal’s World War II letters, Nikolai plots Ollie’s approach to a party like a military campaign.

“You take right flank. I come in from left.”

This really isn’t a war

That’s where you’re wrong.”

Culkin’s Ollie is a greasy-haired drifter with acne. I suppose he has his charm, and his thing for old music can be catnip to the ladies. But you do wonder what the lovely “I was named for the dancer Isadora Duncan” would see in him other than his legendarily rich surname.


“Song of Sway Lake” paddles along on vintage recordings by The Mills Brothers, and songs like “Yellow Bird” and “Begin the Beguine” covered by more recent artists. Director Gold is taking his own script’s advice — “When words fail, music. When music fails, silence.”

Romantic images of the Sways, back in their heydays, skinny dipping in the lake that bears their name are woven in, along with poetic love letters they exchanged during the war (Brian Dennehy voices Hal’s letters).

A prologue cut together from old vacation promotion films engagingly delivers the history of the place, and the omnipresent old 78s — Ollie’s last connection to his father (whom he talks to) — casts a spell, in ways it hasn’t in recent decades of similarly scored Woody Allen comedies.

“Hey dad. I met a girl. What song should I play her?”

“What do ugly guys like us know about love?”

Way back when, then and now, knowing the right song to play could give an “ugly” guy the ticket to the stars.


MPAA Rating: R for language, graphic nudity and some sexual content

Cast: Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan, Isabelle McNally, Mary Beth Piel, Elizabeth Peña, Brian Dennehy

Credits:Directed by Ari Gold, script by Elizabeth Bull, Ari Gold. An Orchard release.

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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