“The Song of Sway Lake" is a love letter (or lovesong) to an underappreciated time of sepia colored photographs and crackling 78 phonographs. The time was the 1940s and the place was upstate New York, at a summer lakeside playground for the elites named after the affluent family who stayed there. After several decades of neglect that saw their estate fade into memory, the youngest progeny of the Sway family returns to the lake that bears his name on a quest to retrieve a long-lost heirloom record and hopefully make some sense of his dysfunctional family at the same time.
Ollie, played so naturally by Rory Culkin, is an old record collector like his father before him, but his father's sudden suicide while staying at the family retreat makes him question his own love of the music that bonded them, as well as his place in the family. Also searching for the vintage record are a charming grifter friend of Ollie's and Ollie's estranged grandmother (the beautiful Mary Beth Peil, who made her big-screen debut at age 52) but all for different reasons including money, redemption and even salvation.
Beautiful swing music combines with flashbacks from a happier time in the Sway family that successfully brings the audience in to inhabit this world, but the sense of loss across generations is just as prominent. The very body of water that was traditionally such a refuge and source of joy and pride for decades to this family has become just an untouchable symbol of their drowning relationships that they can barely bring themselves to look at, let alone swim in.
The atmosphere and songscape are utterly engulfing as family members wage at cross purposes and rage like typhoons internally and against each other in what became Elizabeth Pena’s last film appearance. Her calming and loving influence as the family's longtime servant provides a welcome balance to otherwise turbulent seas. The engrossing performances in this film overcome the trickle of a storyline to make for a very satisfying film going experience, even if the characters themselves don't attain the same.