Capturing mental health issues on screen without victimization or exploitation may feel like a fool’s errand. Swallow is not a foolish film, and its gamble pays off handsomely.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) likes things just so. The new housewife to up-and-coming business heir Richie (Austin Stowell) takes pride in keeping a tidy and appealing home, or at least it seems that way. With any powerful, WASPy family, Richie and his parents have high expectations about appearances and keeping up their airs among friends and colleagues. But Hunter seems happy and grateful to play along with their rules. After all, she has a comfy life and a beautiful house, and a husband who at least tries, in his own way, to be supportive and engaged.
Lest you think this is the typical tale of housewife boredom and assimilation, Swallow takes a sharp turn. While Hunter is cleaning up one day, feeling alienated and bored, she swallows a marble. Just like that. Pops the cool glass orb in her mouth, and swallows it. Suddenly, she’s relaxed. She feels accomplished. This is her little secret, and her way of controlling her corner of the world. As with many self-harming mental disorders, her behavior doesn’t stop at the occasional (and easy to pass) glass marble. It escalates, and is a threat to both her health and that of her unborn child.
For those not up to speed on this condition, Pica is a very real eating disorder. People with the disease eat non-food objects, often at great harm to themselves. In Swallow, Richie and his family have all the sensitivity of a lear jet when trying to get help for Hunter. They’re far more concerned about a fetus than a grown woman, and they’re unwilling to even ask Hunter how she’s doing or what she wants. Throwing money at this issue will not always work, and Swallow fully explores the way that things can go wrong.
Though Hunter’s mental health issues manifest in disordered eating, Swallow is about so much more than the spectacle of eating odd objects. It’s about her yearning to reclaim her life, and her body, as her own. It’s impossible to have a voice if there’s no one willing to listen to you, and the despair and frustration she has, often subconsciously, needs to find an outlet somewhere.
Miraculously, Hunter is never treated as a monster or as a head case. Although Richie’s family is terrible to her, the film observes her with utter empathy and understanding. It’s refreshing to see a film about a privileged woman that both accepts her as she is and gives respect to the fact that mental health doesn’t ignore those who have the means and seemingly perfect lives. A full bank account doesn’t mean a perfect life, and this movie creates that space for the character.
Bennet’s performance is often quiet but always engaging. To convey the physicality of an eating disorder, while faking contentedness, before having it all go to hell, is no easy hat trick, and never for a single second do we wonder what Hunter is feeling. We can see plainly on screen precisely what this complicated woman is going through.
Swallow will not be for everyone, but as an empathetic representation of a woman struggling to be seen and be heard through issues with mental health, it’s a revelation.