Premiering today at the Cinepocalypse Film Fest in Chicago, the first feature-length film from writer/director Dean Kapsalis, The Swerve, is a missile dropkick to the feels. When it seems like things can’t get worse for the main character, they do, and in devastating fashion. Let’s put it this way. If you’re happy and you know it, watch The Swerve. You’ll be cured of that happiness bullshit right quick.
Holly (Azura Skye) appears to have the suburban dream locked down. Her husband, Rob (Bryce Pinkham), is on the verge of a regional management position for a major grocery chain. She has two teenaged boys and a job as a high school English teacher. Holly also has a bleak history, marked by anorexia and overbearing parental figures. It’s a past she has never been able to fully escape. The medications she takes don’t help matters, either. She’s fragile. It doesn’t take much to scoot her off on the way to the bottom.
In this case, it’s the appearance of a mouse in her kitchen. Holly already has food issues, but now she finds her kitchen to be a terrifying place. The mouse could be anywhere. She kicks the trash can before throwing anything away in case the little critter is lying in wait.
That’s where the fear starts. Pile the sudden reappearance of wayward sister, Claudia (Ashley Bell), and the attention of artistic student, Paul (Zach Rand), on top of that. It’s a lot of weight for Holly’s shoulders, and it doesn’t take long for her to start to buckle.
And then, there’s the swerve that changes everything. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that one plot twist informs the rest of the film, and it is horrifying.
This is Azura Skye’s movie. As Holly, she is all dark circles and bone. Skye acts with her sinews. Her facial expressions are phenomenal. If this were a major studio film, this would be the movie that made Azura Skye a star. But a major studio would never make a movie like this about a character like Holly. Watching Skye go from acting on impulse to frightening repression within seconds is frighteningly real. Her distant looks, timid voice, and wan skin tone let the viewer know Holly is tragedy walking. Skye is the reason The Swerve works as well as it does.
Praise should also be given to Ashley Bell as Claudia, the drunken sister who proves to be a disruptive force in Holly’s life. Bell is beautiful in this movie, and she needs to be. Her character provides a direct contrast to the pathetic Holly. Claudia may be sloppy, but she’s alive in her moments. She laughs. She doesn’t hold back. Bell infuses Claudia with fun bitchiness that is joyful, and a little scary, to watch.
Dean Kapsalis directs The Swerve with muted confidence. The camera moves slowly and static shots are the norm. The strength of this film is the cast. Holly’s breakdown doesn’t require a lot of crazy camera tricks. The last few minutes of the story are easy to predict, but those events are inevitable, not telegraphed. Any faults in the script are overcome by the capable cast.
I’m not normally a fan of depressing films and The Swerve is a huge downer. It’s Azura Skye, bringing Holly to frail life, that ensures I will be watching this movie again. Her masterfully quiet performance is one of the best things I’ve seen this year.
The Swerve premieres Saturday, June 15, at the Cinepocalypse Film Fest taking place at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago at 4:15 PM.