More common than one may think, Pica is the psychological disorder in which a person feels compelled to ingest inedible objects. Writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis examines this strange condition in his movie Swallow. This disorder can manifest as any number of bizarre cravings ranging from rather harmless to life threatening. What many may not know about this disorder is the connection it often has to other stressors such as depression, family issues, parental neglect, and pregnancy. Swallow focuses heavily not just on the disorder itself, but also on these psychological precursors.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) is a modern-day version of a 50s housewife. Married into a wealthy family, she tends to the needs of her husband while she stays at home, keeps the house, and prepares dinner for his return. She puts on a happy face, but it becomes clear she is feeling stifled by her domestication. Her husband appears loving on the surface but is clearly a product of his overbearing parents who run his life, and therefore hers as well. After becoming pregnant, she develops pica and begins to compulsively ingest different and increasingly dangerous objects to compensate for the lack of control she has over her life. Meanwhile her unempathetic husband and in-laws exacerbate the situation by using increasingly more oppressive means of control to try and make her stop.
With his directorial debut, Carlo Mirabella-Davis succeeds at showcasing pica through the oppressive conditions many domestic women face that can lead to such disorders. From a clinical perspective, the topic is handled surprisingly well. He resists the urge to overly exploit the condition for shock value, and instead treats the subject matter with maturity. The stressors that cause Hunter to go down this path are true to life and Haley Bennett does a wonderful job of portraying a woman suffering from these compulsions. The means by which her family deals with her is also a prime example of how oblivious much of the world is towards these disorders and highlights precisely how one should not go about helping a loved one who is suffering from them.
Unfortunately, in concocting a scenario in which all the contributing social factors that can lead to pica are on full display, Mirabella-Davis has also created a film that feels very contrived. The supporting characters are never developed beyond the mere caricatures of oppression they are designed to emulate. The 50s decor and culture depicted in this modern film is an interesting choice artistically and does succeed at giving the film a unique aesthetic; however, it doesn’t succeed at making it feel very authentic. That’s not to suggest the conditions under which Hunter lives are not still common, even in modern day. This kind of oppression is still very present, however the oppressors depicted here are completely one dimensional. Everything around Hunter seems to be meticulously designed to exacerbate her condition to the point that it exceeds believability. To illustrate, at one point she overhears her psychologist, who apparently has no regard for confidentiality, disclosing personal information to her husband. Ultimately, everything accumulates to a final scene that on the one hand is emotionally powerful, but on the other feels very unnatural and manufactured.
As a commentary on the often-unseen struggles domesticated women face, Swallow still works. Hunter is a thoroughly fleshed out and compelling character and, most of all, Mirabella-Davis should be commended for the accuracy and maturity he applies to addressing the complicated subject matter. The movie succeeds where it matters most, but the egregiously underdeveloped supporting characters and often unnatural plot development keep this from being the great movie that it should have been. This is disappointing, especially considering with a run time of only 94 minutes this film is fairly short and could have expanded on these issues without subtracting from the main focus. Still, the message is important, and there is tremendous value in the insight it provides into mental illness. For this reason I still cautiously recommend, but be aware that it does fail cinematically in more areas than it should.
Synopsis: Hunter is a domesticated housewife who develops pica, the compulsion to eat nonedible objects, to compensate for the lack of control she has over her life.
Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Writers: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Stars: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Denis O’Hare
Run time: 1 Hour, 34 Minutes