'The Swerve' Captures the Horror of Being Mom in Small-Town Suburbia

Holly looks in mirror
Azura Skye as Holly in THE SWERVE. Photo: Epic Pictures. 

Dean Kapsalis' slow-burning, character-driven tale of suburban malaise depicts the toll of motherhood as seen through the eyes of Holly (Azura Skye; One Missed Call), a wife, mother, teacher, daughter, and sister. Although Holly's tale certainly pushes circumstances to a haunting extreme, the pressures she encounters during an average day will resonate with anyone who has dared to take on the most heroic role of Mom.

Holly does her best to keep a picture perfect household of four in order. She's the wife to a hard-working husband (Bryce Pinkham; "Mercy Street"), the mother to two sons, and a teacher of literature at the local high school. Yet, from the beginning we feel a sense of danger and instability hanging over the household and Holly. So much depends on Holly to make things run smoothly. She must soothe her husband's ego that his promotion hasn't come through yet, make sure the son's football jersey is washed and ready to go, cook breakfast for everyone, and troubleshoot phone calls from Mom insisting she bring apple pie to the family dinner. These transactions occur back-to-back, adding layers of pressure onto Holly's shoulders -- pressures she may be managing with the medications we see her swallowing frequently from the oval medicine cabinet. On top of it all, Holly has spotted a rodent in the house, and no one else seems to think that's a problem, leaving Holly cowering in fear every time she needs to grab something from under the bed. 

Rob and Holly embrace
[L-R] Bryce Pinkham as Rob and Azura Skye as Holly in THE SWERVE. Photo: Epic Pictures.

When Holly's finger gets bitten during one such encounter (we don't see the mouse biting her), Holly's fear that she has been infected with rabies begins to mess with her mind, causing her to question the things she's seeing. Driven by paranoia and unsure who to trust, she begins a course of self-destructive behavior, looking for relief from the madness.

Dean Kapsalis' directorial debut captures the feel of a Greek tragedy set in small-town suburbia. Holly seems doomed from the start, driven to follow a course set long ago. Her tightly wound personality finds it difficult to relax. We see this in her cooking and housekeeping. When she dresses, she smooths the wrinkles out of her clothes and hair. When she serves pie to guests, she takes the time to wipe stray smears off the edge of the plate to make it aesthetically perfect. She fulfills her roles as dutiful daughter to demanding parents, even though doing so makes her seethe on the inside. One family dinner offers all the evidence we need to see that Holly operates out of patterns from her past and at a great cost to self. Holly goes through these motions not understanding she has a choice to do differently, and so her fate is set. Particular plot devices contribute to the Greek tragedy theme: Holly teaches a lesson in her class around a myth, and the male student who has a crush on Holly draws sketches of her inspired by the myths studied in class. 

Holly sits at table eating pie
Azura Skye as Holly in THE SWERVE. Photo: Epic Pictures.

Kapsalis, cinematographer Daryl Pittman (Little Sister), and film music composer Mark Koven (The Witch) create the feel of a horror movie in their visual and sound choices. As Holly goes about her day, the camera often focuses on her feet and hands, bringing our attention to the discomfort of Holly's body. She picks at her fingers, especially after the bandage is applied over her wound. The camera also leans into other sights, such as the mouse traps Holly sets, alerting viewers to watch the object of attention closely. Such close-up shots cause viewers to lean in, increasing the tension. The musical score combines the melancholy sounds of a cathedral choir and discordant noises of the suspenseful variety.

In moments the camera takes the POV of Holly, allowing us to see what her eyes see, like the glances at her hands and the drops of blood falling from her finger. Other scenes take the POV of someone watching Holly from a distance, watching her shop at the market or eating pie by herself at the table. The shift doesn't create confusion, but these two techniques create different viewer experiences. This viewer found the scenes filmed from a distance more compelling, while the up close scenes often felt more manipulative. 

Holly looks unwell
Azura Skye as Holly in THE SWERVE. Photo: Epic Pictures.

The Swerve gets a lot right. Azura Skye's performance as the flawed Holly certainly grabs viewer attention. A willowy woman with long blonde hair, Skye carries the look of a woman haunted by forces beyond her control in her eyes and posture. As the story progresses and her battles with stress and insomnia ramp up, her complexion suffers and takes on the bruised pallor of the unwell. Skye certainly had to lose weight and go through a makeup regiment to undergo such a transformation. And the stylistic choices allow viewers to experience the cognitive dissonance necessary to create a situation in which viewers aren't sure what's real and what's caused by Holly's mental unwinding. The plot is well-paced and contains a nice balance of action and silence, allowing scenes to breathe.

Kapsalis also shows skill in building suspense using everyday objects. And the way the mouse becomes such an important part of the story, when it's barely on-screen, demands respect. The story takes an unfortunate detour in the way it portrays an inappropriate relationship that forms between Holly and her student Paul (Zach Rand). The relationship itself serves an important purpose as viewers witness the way Holly is vulnerable to this sensitive young man's advances, but the pair's awkward sex scenes serve no purpose and result in some unfortunate acting that takes away from the building tension.

While The Swerve doesn't manage to rise above other stories of its kind to make something new, centering the story on Mom's point of view is an inspired choice, and viewers drawn to horrific tales of small-town suburbia will certainly enjoy.

Release Info: Available on VOD + Digital beginning Tuesday, September 22, 2020.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.