Tribeca Film Festival: Swallow (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Swallow (2019) is an odd story that takes a look at a true mental health disorder – called “Pica” – and its effect on Hunter (Haley Bennett). The National Eating Disorder website defines Pica as “…an eating disorder that involves eating items that are not typically thought of as food and that do not contain significant nutritional value, such as hair, dirt, and paint chips.” This disorder lends itself to the cinema, and director Carlo Mirabella-Davis makes some great choices with the camera to really showcase the process.

While the story may initially seem hard to Swallow, it is grounded in a real mental health disorder

Hunter is living the dream. In some ways, it is very much a Cinderella story, as she was a lowly peasant working in retail and was rescued by her Prince Charming, Richie (Austin Stowell), whose wealthy family (played by Denis O’Hare and Elizabeth Marvel) has bought them home and granted Richie his high paying job. In return, Hunter is due to bear the heir to their company, finding herself pregnant. Where the story differs greatly from the classic fairytale is that Hunter’s new situation is full of people who seek to control her life, and none of them seem to truly care about her in any meaningful way.

Bennett’s performance initially felt very flat. Once the story gets going, this performance choice becomes much more clear – and as we begin to see her explore her new found hunger, she really shines. It is a challenging film and performance, but Bennett is terrific. The first incident in which she is struck by these odd cravings starts simply with the ice in her drink at a very fancy family dinner. The cinematography takes on Hunter’s perspective, as she becomes fixated on the cubes cracking and twisting in her glass. Despite the surroundings, the hunger takes over, and she reaches into her glass to retrieve an ice cube and thrusts it into her mouth. The three with her pay no attention – a trait that becomes more apparent as the time goes on – but they can’t ignore her loud crunching. The scenes where she caves to her desires are always entertaining to watch.

The treatment of Pica seems accurate and there is a doctor in the credits who assisted with the portrayal of the symptoms. There are some issues tonally with the film, where the disorder seems to be played with for humor – or at least my audience laughed awkwardly out of discomfort a few times. Perhaps the disorder and the items Hunter is driven to eat just feels too fictional to be taken seriously – but it is a real disorder. There is a scene late in the film that I’ll refrain from giving specifics on, but it appears to connect Pica to another disorder….and if I’m accurately reading the scene – it feels a little alarming.

Final thoughts…

Still, Swallow was an engaging movie that brings awareness to a real disorder that I’d otherwise not really heard about. The cast is great and manages to make this tough movie very engaging while containing scenes that will likely make you twitch in your seat. Sometimes, that is because of medical-related scenes, and at other times, it is because of the treatment of Hunter by her “loved” ones. Swallow earns the Decent Watch rating.

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