May 1, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.
People familiar with reality TV might know about the TLC series “My Strange Addiction,” which was on the air from 2010 to 2015. Every episode documented people with unusual compulsions and obsessions, and a great deal of these episodes featured someone addicted to eating non-food objects. That eating disorder is called pica. The dramatic film “Swallow” is a disturbing fictional look at a young woman who has that disorder.
In “Swallow” (written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis), Haley Bennett plays a housewife named Hunter, who seems to have it all: a wealthy and handsome husband who dotes on her, a baby on the way (her first child), and a beautiful home that she can decorate any way she pleases. But underneath her meek and soft-spoken surface, Hunter is a very disturbed person, and her husband Richie (played by Austin Stowell) is a control-freak perfectionist who treats her like a trophy.
Richie is the type of controlling spouse who gets angry at Hunter because she didn’t iron a silk tie the way he wanted it ironed. Hunter is also living a fairly isolated existence. She seems to have no friends of her own because the people with whom she and Richie socialize are Richie’s friends. Image-obsessed Richie wants the world to think he has a perfect marriage.
It’s widely known that people who develop eating disorders do so because they don’t feel in control of their lives, and their eating habit is their way of trying to feel in control. Hunter’s descent into self-harm begins when she reads a book called “A Talent for Joy” by Bing Roden. (The book and author have been fabricated for this movie.) The book advises readers to try new and adventurous things.
We get the first hint that something is off with Hunter when she’s having dinner at a fancy restaurant with Richie and his snooty parents, Katherine (played by Elizabeth Marvel) and Michael (played by David Rasche), who treat their son like a prince and treat Hunter like a minor inconvenience. However, they seem to be happy that pregnant Hunter will produce an heir for their family. At the dinner, Hunter seems to get excited, perhaps sexually aroused, when she begins chewing on something uncomfortable—ice.
During the course of the movie, we find out that Richie’s parents don’t really approve of the marriage because they think he could have married someone from a better socioeconomic class. Hunter used to work as some sort of clothing retail clerk before she married Richie—something that Katherine sniffs about in hushed tones when she brings up Hunter’s past.
Meanwhile, eating that ice triggers Hunter into consuming several objects that might be too disturbing for some people to see it portrayed on screen. (There were a few people who walked out of the screening I attended, apparently because the idea of a pregnant woman doing this was just too much for them to handle.) The objects that Hunter swallows include a marble, a tack, a battery, paper, a thimble, a button, dirt and a safety pin. The fact that she’s harming her unborn child is of little concern to her, because she apparently doesn’t want to be pregnant.
It’s no surprise that Hunter ends up in the emergency room, where her secret is exposed. Richie and his parents are naturally alarmed and furious. Because she is pregnant, they’re going to do whatever it takes to get her to stop harming herself. They immediately put Hunter into therapy, where she tells her therapist Alice (played by Zabryna Guevara) why she likes to swallow inedible objects: “I like the texture in my mouth. It makes me feel in control.”
And where is Hunter’s biological family in this crisis? That’s an answer the movie reveals but it’s best not to include that spoiler information in this review. However, it is enough to say that her family background has a lot to do with her eating disorder. Even though Hunter promises Richie that she’ll stop, she can’t get rid of her eating disorder that easily. Richie and his parents then take extreme measures to get control of Hunter’s disturbing obsession, which results in Hunter confronting her past.
“Swallow” has a very small cast, which is a reflection of how small and insular Hunter’s world is. In her portrayal of this troubled soul, actress Bennett does a chilling but impressive performance as someone who seems mild-mannered on the outside but has raging self-hatred on the inside. Hunter’s repressed desperation seems to seep through her pores and linger in the air, even in moments of silence.
“Swallow” writer/director Mirabella-Davis says that the Hunter character was inspired by his real-life grandmother Edith, who was afflicted with pica. Like Hunter, Edith was a housewife who was stuck in a miserable marriage, according to Mirabella-Davis. The director also consulted with Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, a leading psychology expert on pica. All of that background information makes a difference, because the movie has a level of authenticity that will make people very uncomfortable and might leave some haunting memories.
UPDATE: IFC Films will release “Swallow” in New York City and Los Angeles and on VOD on March 6, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release expands to more U.S. cities on March 13, 2020.