From its crackpot opening — a tied-up, prostrate girl in lingerie poses for a creepy, buck-naked painter — you wouldn’t expect Swim Little Fish Swim to play like a New York-set Reality Bites crossed with the most cloying elements of mumblecore cinema (uke players, quaint pop lyrics like “Let’s pretend we’re radiators,” Ballantine-swigging hipsters).
But that’s exactly what co-writer/directors Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar have pulled off in their coy debut. As in Bites, that earlier war cry for respecting artistic slacker integrity, the heroes are a struggling experimental video auteur (Bessis) and a proudly unemployed musician (Dustin Guy Defa).
Bessis’s character, who is French, has 10 days to throw together a project for a P.S.1 gallery exhibition, or her visa will expire. Meanwhile, Defa lies to his breadwinner wife (Brooke Bloom) that he’s recording a $5,000 jingle for a hamburger commercial, when he’s actually recording a cutesy album for their four-year-old daughter. (Gentle, capitalism-hating Defa calls the little girl Rainbow; cold-eyed nine-to-fiver Bloom calls her boring old Maggie.)
To make the self-involved protagonists more appealing, the filmmakers give them vicious foils: In Defa’s case, a joyless wife, and in Bessis’s, a successful artist mother who not only cuts her off but despises her work. The performances often enliven the stale material. Bloom, the standout talent here, adds nuance and heartache to an otherwise throwaway role. Bessis has a natural screen radiance, and Defa is disarming, even at his most selfish. But the script’s naïveté is galling.
In the filmmakers’ eyes, simply paying attention for a minute to your estranged loved one’s art can heal decades-long rifts.