Artistic Integrity vs. Real Life in ‘Swim Little Fish Swim’

Tensions are running high in this exclusive clip from the SXSW favorite Swim Little Fish Swim, opening in NYC and premiering on VOD in the U.S. on September 19.

Photo courtesy of Under the Milky Way

I recently read an article in which the author debunked the idea of love as a panacea — that as much as two people can spark immediately, and fall intensely in love, and want to live inside a cocoon of their own swooniness, that’s usually not enough. The real world eventually rears its ugly head, so for a couple to have a lasting and enriching relationship, their core values need to also be in sync: work ethic, life goals, key priorities, etc.

This is of course not a new notion, but it called to mind a movie I’d recently caught up with, one that has been a favorite on the festival circuit since premiering at SXSW in 2013. In Swim Little Fish Swim, writer/directors Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis introduce a couple, Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and Mary (Brooke Bloom), who are not exactly on the same page in many of the ways that matter. Though you can catch distant glimpses of the original reasons they fell in love, when we meet them, they have grown apart considerably — that is to say, Mary has grown up. Leeward, not so much.

Mary is a hardworking nurse who (seemingly singlehandedly) supports her family, including a young daughter she calls Maggie (Olivia Costello). (Leeward calls her “Rainbow,” which is indicative of their mismatch in parenting philosophy.) Leeward is a musician, of the quirky, freewheeling variety, who has been offered a jingle-writing gig that doesn’t mesh with his artistic principles, despite the fact that it would add some much-needed solvency to the family’s precarious finances.

Enter Lilas (Bessis), a 19-year-old French video artist who is visiting New York to escape the reach of her mother, a famous painter whose retrospective at MoMA is imminent. When Lilas needs a place to crash while she waits for her own big break, Leeward offers up their couch… without asking Mary (not for the first time). Lilas and Leeward spend long, lovely, colorful days talking about their work and encouraging one another not to abandon their dreams, while Mary yearns for a more conventionally stable life, which seems heartbreakingly out of reach.

In this exclusive clip, Mary meets Lilas for the first time:

Though most films would consider Lilas and Leeward’s compatibility a setup for a romantic dalliance, Swim Little Fish Swim is not an ordinary film. Rather than employing the simple plot device of an extramarital affair, this film is instead concerned with conflicts that are more philosophical. For example, when, if ever, is the time for an artistic soul to accept financial responsibility for the life choices he or she has made? Does compromise always have to mean sacrificing one’s ideals? What if two people who love each other discover they are not such a good match after all?

These are provocative questions to explore, and Swim Little Fish Swim does it with a light, quirky touch. This is not a completely melancholy film; in fact, it’s often fun and funny. And its thoughtfulness will resonate with people committed to living a creative life… and with those determined to love and support them. The talented actors fully inhabit the characters Amar and Bessis have created; you want them to find a way to be happy, though their individual happinesses may not always coincide.

Swim Little Fish Swim should spark some heated post-film debate when it opens at Cinema Village in NYC on September 19, with more cities to follow. The film will also premiere simultaneously on digital VOD platforms across the country.

Follow Swim Little Fish Swim on Facebook and Twitter.

Note: A version of this piece was also published on The Huffington Post.