On the surface, newlywed Hunter (Hayley Bennett) seems to have it all: a handsome and successful husband, a beautiful home, a comfortable life, and a baby on the way. Perfection is something that is highly prized in her world, and under the ever-mounting pressure of attaining it, Hunter begins to feel overwhelmed. One day, she develops a strange craving for swallowing household objects and she finds that it relieves her anxieties for a short while.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ script is a wonderfully feminist take on perscribed gender roles and the prison they can create. The set design is a gorgeous blend of modern and vintage, giving the film the feel of “classic Americana” while also keeping it grounded in the modern era. It’s a beautiful illustration of how 1950s gender and social norms are still very much a part of our culture today, and how damaging that can be. Hunter’s job is to be a wife: be beautiful, keep a beautiful home, take care of her beautiful husband, and eventually raise beautiful children. She has no agency in this scenario, no control over her world. When she begins to swallow things around the house, the act gives her the feeling of control that she has been missing.
Her family, with their constant emphasis on perfection, has no idea how to handle Hunter’s swallowing obsession (also known as pica). They are less interested in getting help for her and more interested in making the behavior stop so they can maintain the beautiful perfection of the ruling class. Hunter’s disorder is a blemish that must be wiped out. They have no empathy for her, and instead just try to maintain control over her and the situation.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the film involves a very upset Hunter, in the grips of a panic attack, running into her bedroom and hiding under the bed. She is followed by a nurse (Laith Nakli) that the family has hired to watch her and monitor her behavior, and he exhibits the most compassion that Hunter encounters. Instead of telling her to stop or berating her like the rest of her family, he simply sits with her. He puts a hand on her shoulder and tells her that she is safe. He provides the kind of support that she needs and deserves, but hasn’t been given by the people who are supposed to care for her the most. He sees her as a person instead of as a burden.
The film really opens up when Hunter examines some of the reasons behind her newfound obsession. Her marriage was supposed to be a fairytale ending, but achieving the life you always dreamed of doesn’t erase the past that you had been running from. There are pieces of Hunter’s life that remain unaddressed, and watching her begin to examine and come to terms with them is a beautiful part of the story.
The film is really a stunning examination of gender roles, mental health stigma, and healing. We all have our mountains to climb and watching Hunter take on hers is a beautiful experience. Mirabella-Davis has a great deal of empathy for his character and her journey, and the subtle ways her changes and growth are communicated are stunning. Hunter’s transformation and healing experience is communicated visually as much as it is narratively, and the film is rich in detail as we watch her undergo that process.
Swallow is a film that takes on a number of issues and addresses them all in a manner that is thoughtful, respectful, and above all, hopeful. One of my favorites of the fest, this is a film you will want to watch for.
Movie Score: 5/5
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