Teenage friends Carson and Becca are enjoying a night out in Rockaway and Coney Island when they’re joined by a new friend, Julie. The vibe is loose and fun, except that Carson feels a little left out and threatened by Becca’s rapport with Julie, who has the devil-may-care confidence of the archetypal “cool girl.”
When Julie incites their trio to break into a nearby closed-off pool at night, they encounter trouble, and Carson makes a key decision — and tells a lie — that has dark consequences.
Director Victoria Rivera — along with writer Neda Jebelli and producer Camila Zavala — has crafted a dark, bewitching yet somber take on the teenage coming-of-age story, as well as a knotty portrait of the complexities of young female friendship.
Rendered with moody, luminous light and visuals, the intimate, restless camerawork first casts a spell in its evocation of youthful potentiality. The urbane backdrop, with its vivid smears of colors against a rising darkness, summons an almost nostalgic and iconic sense of adventure and restlessness with a poetic immediacy — a perfect playground for three young women to test their boundaries and expand their sense of possibility.
The three friends plunge themselves into this gritty milieu, and played by three excellent young actors, they navigate a thicket of flickering, often contradictory emotions. One minute one of full of bravado; in another, they’re uncertain and insecure.
They seem simultaneously sophisticated in their approach to the world, yet can seem almost childlike in their longing for recognition and affection with one another. And it’s this longing — as well as her own insecurity and jealousy — that drives Carson to make a decision that plays out in a way that will likely haunt her forever.
The coming-of-age story is a classic narrative that often revolves around a shift in consciousness that often widens a character’s sense of the world or who they are. That expansion can be free-spirited and world-changing, thrilling in its sense of newness and power. But sometimes, that opening can reveal instead our potentiality for shadows and darkness, and the moral consequences of thoughtless, heedless action and selfishness.
“Night Swim” falls into the latter, but it has a moral, narrative and emotional intelligence that avoids simple sermonizing. The trauma that arises happens off-screen, but by rooting the “moral disaster” of the story in the messiness of human longing, flaws and vulnerability, it creates a tough yet fragile portrait of a young woman making a serious misstep. For her, the understanding of her self becomes fuller not because of a dawning sense of mission or grand adventure — but because she realizes just how far the consequences of her actions will ripple out, likely for the rest of her life.