Have you ever picked up a marble and wanted to ingest it? Or a push-pin? A battery? Any other items normally considered inedible? If not, you likely don’t suffer from the psychological disorder known as pica – an eating disorder at the center of Swallow, the feature film debut from Carlo Mirabella-Davis. While pica may be new and confounding to most of us, the real story is what drives someone to swallow items that could be harmful and cause severe pain?
Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train) stars as Hunter Conrad, a newly married trophy wife to spoiled and handsome Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell). Richie is so entitled that his even more entitled dad (David Rasche) makes a big deal out of promoting his son to partner by proclaiming at a dinner party that “he earned it.” Oh and this is after the parents bought the newlyweds a stunning home with a view. It’s obvious Hunter ‘married up’ from a socioeconomic perspective, but her GQ husband pays more attention to his cell phone than he does to his wife or the picture-perfect dinners she prepares. Hunter’s Mother-in-Law (Elizabeth Marvel) offers up awkward support and passive-aggressive compliments…such as a self-help book entitled A Talent for Joy.
The book is a gift to Hunter immediately after Richie tells his parents “We’re pregnant!” A passage in the book mentions to ‘push yourself to experience new things.’ It’s at this point where Hunter sees herself become even more of an accessory within the family. One morning, she spots a decorative marble and pops it in her mouth. She seems to take pleasure in this, and…um…after it passes, displays it as some type of trophy. Soon other items join the marble on display, until finally, Hunter is in so much pain, she’s rushed to the hospital for surgery.
Pica is a disorder that’s difficult to understand. Haley seems to be complacent, having no real persona other than her pretty face and pristine wardrobe. Swallowing the items evidently delivers the feeling lacking in her life – a life where her job seems to be becoming the perfect wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. Worried about the safety of the unborn baby, the family hires Luay (Laith Nakli), a Syrian live-in nurse, to keep an eye on Hunter. Oddly enough, the war-toughened Luay shows more compassion to Hunter than anyone else in the family.
The film shifts gears a bit when we start learning more about Hunter’s backstory during her trips to the psychiatrist (Zabryna Guevara). This backstory is of course tragic and explains a great deal about Hunter’s strange compulsion. It also leads to a sequence with Denis O’Hare, who is a welcome presence in most any movie. The two share a scene that allows Hunter to fill in the gaps of her life.
Director Mirabella-Davis doesn’t treat the rich as caricatures, but rather symbolic of the self-centeredness that seems to go along with wealth. We see goodness in places we don’t expect it. We lack the trust in places we should be able to depend on. Additionally, we question whether finding one’s true self through genetics makes any real sense when compared with just making up one’s mind about the kind of person they want to be. This is a disturbing, trippy, darker-than-expected film with an interesting score from composer Nathan Halpern. When it veers from the skirts of horror and suspense towards political and social topics, the film loses steam and tries to cram in a bit too much. Still, it’s an unusual and creative film with a terrific performance from Ms. Bennett, and leaves us looking forward to the next Mirabella-Davis project.