In his Academy Award-winning short film Stutterer, writer-director Benjamin Cleary presented the story of a man with a speech impediment that makes even the most basic conversations extremely difficult. When he’s faced with meeting a woman he’s only talked to online in person, the man must decide if avoiding the truth is better than dealing with it head-on. Cleary once again explores this idea in his feature-length debut, Swan Song, a near-future science-fiction story that asks if it’s more important to be honest with the ones we love, or to avoid the truth if it eases their (and our own) pain.
Cleary does this through Mahershala Ali’s Cameron Turner, a graphic designer who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Instead of telling his family about his sickness, he is given the choice to create a clone of himself that would take his place, allowing his family to never know that their real father and husband is dead. Cameron’s wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) recently lost her twin brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi), a pain that still affects the Turner household.
Cameron goes to a lab that feels straight from Ex Machina, where he meets the team (Glenn Close, Adam Beach, Lee Shorten) who will take Cameron’s memories and create a perfect copy of Cameron. While at the lab, Cameron will also meet Kate (Awkwafina), another terminally ill patient who has undergone this same situation, as Cameron tries to decide if replicating himself is the right choice for himself and his family.
The heart of Swan Song comes in Ali’s dual performance. Often in the same scene, Ali has to play the man giving his family over to his replica, and also play the aforementioned replica. Ali is restrained in both roles, as his small mannerisms speak volumes about the internal struggle going on within Cameron’s head. But in addition to that, Ali has to play Cameron reflecting on the most important moments of his life, not only struggling with how important they were to him, but with the idea of passing on these key elements that make him who he is onto another person. Ali’s performance is a fantastic example of how charming, captivating, and powerful can be, which makes the fact that this is his first lead role in a film even more shocking, especially after two Oscars.
Harris is also excellent as Poppy, and as we see her mostly through the memories of Cameron, we see her at her most emotional moments, whether it’s through a meet-cute with Cameron on a train, or her struggle to deal with the death of her brother. Harris matches Ali’s allure and grace, and her impression is essential to making this story work.
Oddly, it’s the team at the mysterious Arra House who create Cameron’s clone that is the most underserved by Swan Song’s story. There’s an air of suspense and uncertainty around this whole operation, and even a bit of dissension amongst the three-person team, yet nothing is really done with these elements. There’s an underlying darkness that’s never fully utilized, especially with Close’s Dr. Eve Scott, who makes decisions about Cameron’s life that may not be what he or her team thinks is best. While the Arra House is likely underutilized because the focal point here needs to be Cameron’s decision, it still plays like a missed opportunity that is hinted at, but rarely fleshed out.
While Cleary’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by way of Alex Garland story is certainly intriguing, Swan Song rarely has the emotional weight that a story about a man passing on his life to another and revisiting his life should have. Similarly, Swan Song never seems to get into the implications of Cameron’s deceiving his family. Cameron’s choice is simply boiled down to letting them live in blissful ignorance, or possibly irrevocably wreck this family. The performances by Ali and Harris provide some fantastic moments, but the narrative overall rarely has the poignant payoff that such a story about self-reflection and letting go should have.
Yet what is fully realized is Cleary’s glimpse at the future, a phenomenally crafted world that feels both ahead of its time, and still right around the corner. The world of Swan Song is like our own, but full of technological innovations that one could see eventually coming to fruition. Small details like the display on Cameron’s computer, the way a house reacts to a person entering a room, or self-driving cars all help sell the world of Swan Song. Production designer Annie Beauchamp deserves Oscar consideration for her impeccable crafting of this world, while Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography gives this world a cool, relaxing glow that permeates every scene.
Between the distinct style and inventiveness of both Swan Song and Stutterer, Cleary is without a doubt an invigorating talent to watch, and while Swan Song can’t quite emotionally sell what should be a moving portrait of contemplation and loss, but the world Cleary creates, and the tremendous performances by Ali and Harris, undeniably make Swan Song worth the time. Hopefully, Cleary’s future projects will have the same amount of remarkable style, while also delving into the narrative’s bigger questions and expanding the story’s poignant emotional core. If Cleary can manage that, he could truly become one of the most exciting directors working today.