Swim Little Fish Swim is, above all else, a very charming film. In fact, it may have been a little too charming for me. I appreciate character-driven dramas, but it is the drama in the film that keeps me engaged throughout. Swim Little Fish Swim introduces some really interesting conflicts into the story, and each conflict has a good variance of high and low stakes. However, the conflicts are either never quite resolved or resolved in a rather unsatisfying way. I did really enjoy the film, but it left me wanting more.
Co-directed and written by Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis (who also plays the starring role), the film explores the lives of artists Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and Lilas (Bessis) as their paths cross in New York’s Chinatown. Leeward is a starving artist who refuses to sell out to a commercial in order to support his wife Mary (Brooke Bloom) and his daughter Maggie/Rainbow (Olivia Durling Costello). Meanwhile, Mary works tirelessly as a nurse in order to make up for Leeward’s irresponsible tendencies. To complicate matters, Leeward is introduced to a French artist Lilas, who needs a place to stay until she is able to apply for her Visa. Lilas’s artistic spirit invigorates Leeward into making poor familial decisions in an effort to pursue his dream as an artist.
There are a lot of extrinsic conflicts that we see transpire on screen, but the primary conflict is intrinsic. Basically, the film is largely concerned with the question, “Is commercial artistry still art?” Leeward has a brilliantly unique sound, which is a large ensemble of toy instruments that accompany his singer-songwriter-style vocals. (The music isn’t predominantly featured in the film, but with two or three musical numbers, it is something worth watching.) Leeward’s resistance to selling his sound to a commercial stems from the fact that he believes in “giving back to the people”, something that a commercial industry does not do. The same conflict can be seen with Lilas and her relationship to her commercially successful artist mother. Lilas wants to produce her own unique art, but she wants to do it outside of her mother’s household name.
There is a beautiful set of complexities here: Leeward doesn’t want to be commercial, but he must do so in order to provide for his family. Lilas wants to be commercial in order to obtain her Visa, but she does not want to have any aid from the commercial status of her mother. These complexities are wrapped up in the subtle relationship between Leeward and Lilas: it is almost as if their artistic spirits become intertwined upon meeting one another. They don’t really have impactful dialog exchanges, but there is enough immediate chemistry between the two characters that Leeward invites Lilas to accompany him on each of his artistic ventures.
So, if Lilas is always with Leeward and Maggie/Rainbow, where is Mary in all of this? She is attempting to buy a house that she is hoping Leeward’s commercial paycheck will help pay for. Instead, he uses inherited money to pay for studio time and ignores the commercial’s filming date. That being said, you would think that when Mary finds out about Leeward’s irresponsibility and his chemistry with the young French woman, she would be rather upset. While she does get upset, the way in which it is portrayed in the film seems rather off. There really isn’t a single time that I felt any threat towards Leeward. It really just felt like Mary was a little upset, rather than that the marriage was about to fail. Given the large amount of irresponsibility we see in Leeward throughout the film, it is extremely surprising and a little disappointing that the consequences didn’t match his actions.
Overall, the film’s complex statement about commercial art is its strongest suit. To that effect, you can expand the question outward to a more meta-critical stance: was Swim Little Fish Swim produced to be a commercial film, or does it have Leeward’s spirit of giving back to the people? Despite the fact that it failed to deliver more intense consequences, I would say that the film is worth watching, so you may answer that question for yourself. If not, at least watch the film for its music. You will either love it or hate it, but it will be a unique performance to watch.