As slow-burns where a woman finds herself increasingly unhinged go, The Swerve is a solid debut from writer/director Dean Kapsalis, starring a diminutive Azura Skye in the central role. She plays Holly, a teacher whose life is turned upside down in ways both small and large after a late-night traffic incident that haunts every aspect of her life. Weaving together both real and imagined traumas in Holly’s life, the film eventually takes a quite dark and even sad turn as she resorts to solving for her problems the only way she can think of: with drama and violence.
At home, Holly is the organizing force behind her family of men—husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) and two teenage sons—keeping them fed and dressed and on time to school and work. Rob is a manager at the local grocery store looking to get a promotion and her boys make life difficult in the way teenagers typically do, bickering with each other and full of attitude towards their parents. Holly and Rob join her parents and sister for dinner one night, and there’s drama there, too. Her sister Claudia (Ashley Bell) carries all sorts of baggage around what sounds like a traumatic childhood and an inferiority complex where her sister is concerned, and after a glass of wine or two she’s not afraid to bring it all up. Holly insists she’s moved on from all of it, but it’s easily apparent how well Claudia can get under her skin.
Driving home one night, Holly encounters a car of rowdy guys who try to get her attention; in the middle of the interaction, the other driver loses control of his car and swerves off the road, crashing into a tree and killing those inside (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s all in the trailer). In a narrative choice that’s a bit on the nose, this incident also sends Holly’s life careening into chaos, as she grapples with the internal guilt of that night. Kapsalis does an impressive job of layering disturbances onto Holly’s thin shoulders, from a mouse pestering her in the kitchen, startling her already frail nerves when it pops out from behind the garbage can, to discovering her husband is having an affair (or at least fooling around with) a colleague.
It’s all enough to make anyone crack, and while it’s distressing to watch Holly crumble under the pressure, it’s also impossible to look away. Skye is made up to look drained, weary and completely overlooked, and her soft-spokeness even in the face of so much stress makes her as pathetic as it does relatable. Through it all, Kapsalis leaves little narrative bread crumbs (or perhaps pie piece?) throughout our time with Holly and her family so that when she finally makes up her mind to deal with it all, any shock around her decision is replaced with a sort of dejected acceptance. It’s the only way out, as far as she can see it, and she approaches her decision with dignity and without remorse. Skye eating her fresh-baked apple pie, knowing what we know about what she’s doing, is the most captivating and unsettling pie-eating scene since Rooney Mara’s in A Ghost Story.
If the first two-thirds of The Swerve take their time to build tension and draw us into Holly’s misery, the final act blows it all wide open. Credit to Kapsalis for taking Holly’s damaged narrative to dark places…and then going even darker. As she loses what’s most important to her (often one in the same as what she holds dearest), her complete mental breakdown is harrowing to watch. In a year where it’s anyone’s guess where the traditional attention will go for year-end film awards, Skye certainly makes a case for looking at small, indie thrillers for standout female performances. Though largely contained, her performance is nevertheless impressive as she deploys even the smallest choices to communicate big emotions.
As we’re all feeling more than a bit on edge these days, the deterioration and combustion featured in The Swerve may feel less like entertainment and more like tragic catharsis.
The Swerve is now available on VOD.
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