The Embodiment of Grief – Swan Song (2021)

With the rush of theatrical releases slowed by the new year, I took the time to check out a straight-to-streaming title I’ve had my eye on and I’m glad I did. Benjamin Cleary’s debut feature, Swan Song, is a sharply intimate crossroads where mortality and grief intersect with technology. 

A man facing a terminal illness must decide whether to burden his family with the truth or undergo a radical and secret cloning procedure without their knowledge. As his condition worsens, he begins to wonder if he’s gone too far and is faced with the fact that it might already be too late. 

Meet Cameron and Jack

Already an Oscar-winner for his short film Stutterer, this was a wonderfully ambitious debut feature film from writer/director Benjamin Cleary and it’s part of a recent trend in science fiction that takes a look at how technology may be used to deal with grief and what the implications of that tech may be. I love the minimalist approach to the presentation from production designer Annie Beauchamp that lets you we are in the not too distant future by amplifying and modifying tech that already exists rather than trying to create something just for the wow factor. It’s subtle but effective and it gives the narrative a boost without detracting from the core of the story like some other sci-fi films that rely more heavily on the visual effects to carry the tone. 

Benjamin Cleary on set with his star Mahershala Ali

The script is strong and it leans into the emotional and moral implications of the idea, taking into account the psychological weight of memory (good and bad), how past trauma affects our present, and how those things factor into who we are. I really enjoyed how Cleary presented his main character’s struggle while also raising some existential questions about what it means to be alive, to have a soul, and to love. 

Mahershala Ali stepped into the lead role with all the refinement we have come to expect from him in recent years. Playing both Cameron and Jack, Ali shows tremendous range and depth as he’s the one carrying the audience through the journey. It’s the subtleties that end up making the performance as he’s playing two versions of the same person as they interact with one another. When he’s not, Ali is sublime with the rest of the stellar cast. 

Ali and Naomie Harris reunited

It was nice to see him reunited with Naomie Harris and I wish they would have had more screen time together because their chemistry is excellent. Much of that unfolds through flashing memory sequences that lay the foundation for the primary narrative choices. Her character, Poppy, plays a big role in the story’s bigger picture and Harris is more than good enough to dive into those waters, but that’s just not what this story is. Despite being Cameron’s wife, that’s never the primary relationship in the film. 

Awkwafina has had quite the year

Awkwafina continues to diversify her portfolio with thoughtful and challenging roles that still utilize her comedic background. It’s not a huge role,  but it’s important and she does a great job with it. She’s definitely in contention for my Performer of the Year. Glenn Close plays the doctor in charge of the procedure and her particular gravitas is an important anchor for the film. Adam Beach also does a very nice job as one of her assistants. Nyasha Hatendi was fantastic in short bursts as Poppy’s brother and I would have liked to see more of him.  You can tell how good the script was by the kinds of names who wanted to get involved with it. 

It’s rare when the doctor behind an experimental new technology has a heart in sci-fi films

I had been looking forward to this one for a while and I was certainly not disappointed. Having released straight to streaming, I don’t know if it will be eligible during awards season. However, it was a very impressive feature debut from Cleary and I’ll be keeping an eye out for his next project.

Recommendation: Probably more for the cerebral sci-fi fans, see it for the performances and the existential questions that come with it. 

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