Movie Review: ‘Swan Song’

Greetings again from the darkness. In a cinematic oddity, this is my second SWAN SONG film to review this year. The first was a SXSW starring vehicle for Udo Kier, and now we have the first feature film from writer-director Benjamin Cleary, who won an Oscar for his 2015 short film STUTTERER. It’s safe to say the two SWAN SONGS share no similarities other than their title. Cleary presents a sci-fi drama that applies moral and ethical questions to advanced medical science, and our inherent desire to protect loved ones.

Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT, 2016) stars as Cameron, a graphic design artist recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Rather than disclose this to his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris, MOONLIGHT) and young son Cory (Dax Rey), Cameron opts for an alternative course of action offered by Dr. Jo Scott (8 time Oscar nominee Glenn Close). It’s an extreme and risky solution to a horrible situation, and Cameron’s only motivation is to shield his family from the pain and grief his death would cause.

Dr. Scott, working with Dalton (Adam Beach), a psychologist, has concocted not just a cloning process right down to a person’s DNA, but also the transfer of memories and subconscious memory storage into said clone. The idea is that loved ones never realize they’ve lost a loved one. Is this morally justifiable? Is it ethical? Is this deceit the right thing to do even if it spares the pain of loss? As Cameron goes through the process (and meets the new him), we see much of his life in flashback form, and get a feel for the love in his marriage, as well as the struggles incurred. While at the center … a stunning modern facility buried deep in the picturesque forest … Cameron meets another ‘client’ played by Awkwafina (CRAZY RICH ASIANS, 2018), who steers him through the process and the (at times) stifling emotions.

Mr. Ali and Ms. Harris are terrific in their scenes together, and it helps us understand why Cameron agrees to do this for her. Director Cleary never backs away from Cameron’s conflicted thoughts – probably the same most would have – and we comprehend why he’s tortured. However, the film never tackles some of the big picture questions and issues raised by such a proposal. The film is certain to spur plenty of thought and debate. It’s a nice-looking film with strong sound design and terrific performances … leading up to your decision: what would you do?

Available in theaters and on AppleTV+ beginning December 17, 2021.

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