SXSW Review: Swim Little Fish Swim

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Swim Little Fish Swim

Anyone pursuing a career in the arts will appreciate Swim Little Fish Swim, a film about the perennial battle between art and commerce, between dreams of success and the unkind reality that shatters those dreams.

An engaging and appealing movie by French filmmakers Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis, Swim Little Fish Swim is the story of Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and Mary (Brooke Bloom), a struggling young couple living in a tiny Chinatown apartment with their three-year-old daughter, Maggie (Olivia Costello) -- or "Rainbow," as her always creative father prefers to call her.

That Leeward and Mary cannot agree on what to call their daughter speaks volumes about their troubled relationship. A talented musician, Leeward considers himself a misunderstood artist and refuses to accept paid gigs for The Man, fearing they will stifle his creativity. (He won't even record a CD of his songs; that would be much too mainstream.) He's also a self-styled New Age visionary who opposes most forms of capitalism and consumerism, much to the annoyance of Mary, a sensible, hardworking nurse who wishes her husband would grow up, face the responsibilities of adulthood and help her pay the bills.

Crowding the family's tiny apartment is a quirky parade of Leeward's friends and their friends and various hangers on, an artsy coterie of impoverished dreamers whom Leeward entertains with impromptu parties. Among them is Lilas (Bessis), a 19-year-old French artist and experimental filmmaker trying to make it in New York and escape from her overbearing mother, a world-renowned painter. When Lilas needs a place to stay, Leeward of course obliges; he always does, often without asking his unbelievably patient and tolerant wife.

Lilas is a gracious houseguest, but her presence further strains Leeward and Mary's already rocky marriage. As she creates her art and pursues a possible show at a New York gallery, she bonds with Leeward as they share a creative worldview and a passion for self expression. Meanwhile, Mary has her own dream: She wants to buy a house and settle into a more comfortable lifestyle -- with Leeward's financial help, of course -- and Lilas isn't helping things.

And thus art and commerce do battle in a very cramped New York City apartment. Swim Little Fish Swim explores this theme with a mix of surrealism, childlike wonder, occasional warm fuzziness and a slightly avant-garde sensibility, all fighting the good fight against bourgeois conventionalism. The film favors neither side -- it celebrates Leeward and Lilas' artistic yearnings while sympathizing with the overworked, exhausted, frustrated Mary, as if encouraging the two opposing forces to reach a compromise.

Swim Little Fish Swim also entertains us with endearingly oddball characters, from naked artists shooting arrows at paint-filled balloons to Leeward's controlling, sort of observant Jewish family, and to a fast-talking recording studio engineer who insists that dozens of world-famous musicians have recorded at his bargain-basement studio. (It's doubtful that Annie Lennox took advantage of the studio's $999 recording-and-CDs special.)

I particularly identified with Lilas, who vies with Mary for Swim Little Fish Swim's most likeable character. Generally sweet and good natured, she also can't hide her career frustrations, especially as she finds her way in the shadow of her famous mother. Her experimental Super 8 films are the most intriguing aspects of Swim Little Fish Swim, serving as blotchy, grainy, penetrating devices to develop the film's other characters. Bessis plays Lilas with just the right balance of optimism and tragedy. And like Lilas, Bessis is a woman of many talents: In addition to producing, co-directing and starring in Swim Little Fish Swim, she also co-wrote the screenplay -- all at age 21.

Adding to the film's appeal is its irresistibly charming soundtrack, especially Leeward's whimsical and yet very cool songs, which he plays on magical toy-based instruments of his own design. The songs actually are the work of Toys and Tiny Instruments, a Brooklyn psych-pop band. Group founders Colin Summers and Alec Betterley appear in the film as Leeward's musician friends. Other songs and music are from Queens-based folk/soul singer Candace Lee Camacho, who also appears in the film, and Americana musician Penn Sultan.

Intriguing, warmly inviting and artistically provocative, Swim Little Fish Swim has much to say about the arts and their relationship to society at large. It will appeal to creative types -- and those who put up with them.

Austin/Texas connections: Dustin Guy Defa's feature film Bad Fever premiered at SXSW 2011, and his documentary short Family Nightmare screened at SXSW 2012.