The thrill of watching Mahershala Ali in any role has only grown over the last couple of years, so the prospect of getting two of him in one movie is almost more than my brain can contemplate. Set in the near future, writer/director Benjamin Cleary’s feature debut, Swan Song, is a highly emotional journey about Cameron Turner (Ali), a husband and father who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. Because his disease is incurable but progressing slowly, he’s in the unique position to be a part of a still-experimental “alternative” to dying, thus sparing his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and young son Cory (Dax Rey) the pain of having to lose him. Most right-thinking human beings would probably jump at the chance to spare their loved ones that kind of pain, but this solution carries with it an ethical burden that Cameron may not be prepared to accept.
Using a process orchestrated by Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close), he allows a clone of himself (named Jack) to be grown, and when we enter into this story, he’s about to engage in the final steps of this process—having his memories copied into the clone. Once Scott and her small team of scientists and psychologists (including one played by the great Adam Beach) have made sure Jack is bug free, they will send him out into the world with the hope that nobody will notice the difference. The team has only done this a couple of times, including once with a woman named Kate (Awkwafina, in a sweetly dramatic role), who Cameron meets at the facility (she’s nearing her own death); he also meets her flawless clone in the real world, where not even her own daughter has noticed the replacement.
Cameron is struggling with the idea of not being able to say goodbye to his family, which he realizes is selfish, but after seeing his wife’s descent into depression after losing her twin brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi) a couple years earlier, he can’t imagine putting her through that again. He has had spells/seizures because of his condition, and he struggles to make certain that his family never sees that happen. If they find out he’s dying, the entire process will be called off.
As the memory transfer is occurring, we’re treated to small fractions of his history, including the adorable way he met Poppy on a train. The futuristic aspects of the film are kept to a minimum (we see a few driverless cars throughout the movie), but the sleek, simple production design, especially of the island facility where Dr. Scott works, act as something of a shortcut to letting us know that we are observing events in a time other than our own.
I’m not sure if the film is meant to convey tension and curiosity as to whether Cameron will bow out of the process at some point, but the story goes so far to make it clear that to do so would traumatize his wife and likely his son that there’s really never any doubt that he’ll go through with it. Instead, the drama of Swan Song comes from observing Cameron work through the mental anguish of not only losing his family but watching someone else—albeit a perfect copy of him—carry on in his place. Ali sells this struggle exquisitely; he wants to think of himself as someone who would sacrifice for his family, but since they will never know what he did for them, the sacrifice seems empty to him, and that makes him feel worse about himself.
As committed to the role as Ali is, Swan Song still feels like low-stakes sci-fi. If this technology existed in the real world, most people would jump at the chance to take advantage of it. Again, the real thrill of the movie is watching Ali act with himself using seamless special effects, and giving Cameron just enough desperation and physical exhaustion from his disease to differentiate himself from Jack. Cameron is tasked with fully integrating Jack into his life through interactions at the facility, and after a while, Jack becomes just as sympathetic to Cameron’s position as one might expect. The dynamic is fascinating, if not that exciting. Swan Song is more of an acting exercise than a fully realized film, but when the actor doing the mental gymnastics is Mahershala Ali, one is compelled to sit back and enjoy the show.
The film is now playing theatrically and streaming on Apple TV+.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!