Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Reviewed as part of the Virtual Frightfest in August, this sympathetic and ultimately tragic portrayal of a fragile woman unravelling will strike a chord with its audience.
We first meet a dead-eyed and blood-splattered Holly (Azura Skye) driving her minivan through nocturnal suburban streets. In essence, The Swerve tells the story of how this ordinary and relatable middle-aged English teacher and mother of two arrived at such a distressing state.
Holly is the epitome of what all women are taught to aspire to: a devoted teacher, wife, and mother, who is self-sacrificing in her attempts to make her family happy. She is slim, blond, and conventionally attractive, and thus, by patriarchal logic, her life should be a dream rather than a nightmare. Yet she is treated with contempt by those she loves. Her grocery-store manager husband, Rob (Bryce Pinkham), is small-minded and self-involved, forever fretting about money and the lack of recognition at his job. Teenage sons Paul (Taen Phillips) and Lee (Liam Seib) snap at her like she’s the hired help, when they bother to acknowledge her at all. The glassy-eyed students in her classroom seem utterly uninterested in her lessons on poetry and literature. She does not appear to have any friends.
We become aware that Holly is not a well woman from the medication she takes. Despite the brave face that the character puts on every day, Skye portrays her as a visibly fragile and exhausted woman who unravels mentally leading to the audience to question what is real and what is a hallucination.
After a sympathetic glimpse into Holly's miserable life during the first act, she faces an accumulation of setbacks, miseries, and humiliations. There’s the mouse, of course, which Holly vainly attempts to exterminate. The creature bites her hand as she’s fumbling for her shoes one morning, and the resulting wound becomes a compulsive focus for Holly. Rob is entirely focussed on promotion at the grocery store, and seemingly a rather buxom colleague.
Finally, after a drive to ease the humiliation at the hands of her family, Holly is terrorised by a carload of drunks. To her horror, her attempts to evade her harassers result in a fatal crash for the other vehicle – or do they? Holly awakens the next morning convinced that she is responsible for the deaths of two men reported killed in a single-car accident. Granted, her own minivan doesn’t have a scratch on it, but the events of the previous night seemed so real.
Then there’s the matter of her doe-eyed hunky student Paul (Zach Rand), from whom she confiscates a notebook filled with erotic sketches. For Holly, who never seems to get so much as a droplet of kindness or appreciation from anyone, Paul’s attentions become a troubling source of romantic and sexual vexation. There’s is something problematic about the way that The Swerve presents a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student . Although many of their encounters are unsavoury and demonstrative of Holly's self-destruction , the film seems to suggest that Paul is a legitimate source for the affection and affirmation that Holly deserves.
The cinematography and use of location really struck me. Every shot is beautifully executed. Here director Dean Kapsalis excels in a way that even seasoned directors struggle with at times. A scene where Holly walks the empty halls of the school continues to haunt me. It struck me as a portrait of stark and miserable loneliness despite being surrounded by others.
Ultimately, the success of The Swerve rests overwhelmingly on Skye’s shoulders. Her fantastically anguished performance is what creates a genuinely haunting character who is compellingly familiar to the audience. The viewer can’t help but feel every pang of shame, frustration, and suffocating agony that Holly experiences as she plummets towards a sadly inevitable tragedy.