When it comes to contemporary movie milieus, the phrase “downtown boho hipsters” strikes fear into the hearts of cliché-dreading filmgoers. French writer-directors Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar approach that over-romanticized Manhattan scene with wide-eyed wonder in “Swim Little Fish Swim,” understandably entranced by the street energy of the city in summer while cutting les artistes way too much slack.
But there’s also an undertow, the most compelling element in an art-versus-commerce drama that consists of one beautifully aching performance surrounded by a whole lotta twee.
The story concerns two supposedly pure creative spirits, timid and self-consciously quirky, who encourage each other to go for it: French visual artist Lilas (co-director Bessis) and adamantly unemployed musician Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa). He lets her crash on the couch without consulting his wife, Mary (Brooke Bloom), a hospital nurse who works long, draining hours and is the only convincing character.
It’s unfathomable how Mary and Leeward ever got together, but Bloom brings a yearning melancholy to her role, even as Mary is positioned as Leeward’s buzzkill conscience. In that department, Lilas has her discouraging mother (Anne Consigny), an art-world superstar.
Insisting on calling his daughter Rainbow although her name is Maggie, Leeward is an overgrown child himself, coddled by his grandmother. A critique of him and, to a lesser extent, Lilas is implicit throughout, and yet the filmmakers’ final, redemptive gestures celebrate them. What they don’t understand is that Lilas and Leeward’s retro affectations — she uses actual film, he strums an actual ukulele — don’t make them lovable and don’t make their creations intriguing or true.
“Swim Little Fish Swim.”
MPAA rating: None. In English and French with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood. Also on VOD.