Teens make bad decisions. It’s the reason why, in America at least, we don’t legally let them do potentially harmful things like drink, gamble, or…rent a car. All of us did stupid, thoughtless, even cruel things as teens, and if we’re lucky, the embarrassment, or shame, or even injury, is fleeting—chalk it up as a learning experience and perhaps fodder for funny stories down the road. “That’s just life”, we say.
Sometimes people aren’t lucky. Sometimes the ramifications of rash decisions don’t fade, and the real-life consequences that linger feel hugely disproportionate to the carefree thoughtlessness of the moment. The enormity of the resulting burden feels unfair to place onto such half-formed messes of hormones, but that’s life too.
Set in and around the New York City beach communities of Rockaway and Coney Island, Night Swim follows 3 young women on a night out. Silly and bored in a classic teen manner, Carson and Becca’s night is shaken up by newcomer Julie, who incites a break-in to a closed-off pool nearby. As Carson begins to feel her friendship with Becca strain because of Julie, a threat appears and Carson makes a decision that she won’t be able to take back.
In the second film that director Victoria Rivera, her screenwriting partner, Neda Jebelli, and producer, Camila Zavala, have placed on this site (after 2018’s Verde), a pattern has started to take shape in their collaborations. They are fascinated by female coming-of-age stories that, in a way that is perfect for the short film medium, explore seminal moments of teenage development. Their scripts aim to crystallize momentous shifts in their character’s self-understanding, and though in both films the protagonist is a degree removed from trauma—their actions (or inactions) don’t affect them directly—a moral dilemma presented to them invites harm to others. The messiness of female friendship confuses them, and, as has often been explored in art, the intimacy of these relationships can be similar to romantic ones in intensity, so feelings of jealousy provoke a selfishness that is likely to haunt them for a long time after.
If Rivera and Jebelli’s scripts are establishing certain thematic preoccupations, Rivera, currently enrolled at Columbia University’s MFA program for film, is also beginning to exhibit certain signatures with her direction. Night Swim, while opposed in setting to the verdant lushness of Verde’s Colombian backdrop, possesses a similarly observant eye. Rivera is precociously attuned to her actors, and skilled in the act of eliciting and capturing non-verbal communication which is integral to the narrative arc. In a traditional NYC indie-style, Night Swim is shot hand-held by its DP, Allison Anderson, with a roving, and in the words of Rivera, “volatile” camera, that lends immediacy to the cinematography, immersing the viewer in the subjectivity of the friend group. We feel part of the action, a voiceless and unacknowledged part of the gang as they traverse the beachfront, and that presence allows for us to notice novelistic details that reveal the interiority of the characters—their uncertainty, their hurt, their bravado.
It also induces a sense of complicity at the film’s moment of moral compromise. Carson is not a villain, simply flawed. As Rivera describes to us, “I don’t believe in heroes or villains, and am instead interested in the messiness in between that makes us human. The repercussions of the protagonist’s actions take place off-screen, rendering the question (of the climax) almost futile, given that our protagonist’s crime was walking away, no matter what followed. The not-knowing is somehow worse…”
Rivera’s ability to craft nuanced and layered portraits of teen protagonists is an awesome skill, and wedding them to potently dramatic plots where the impact is subtextual is a very mature storytelling quality, speaking volumes about her future potential. Night Swim’s achievement in this has been recognized on the festival circuit, as the film played Tribeca and Telluride, and picked up awards at Palm Springs and Bogota. Rivera is now working on new projects: she has a short film in post-production, and is busy on her debut feature, Malpelo, which was awarded a grant from the famed Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and recently completed Film Independent’s labs.