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Arts & Extras: Indie film 'The Swerve,' made in Roanoke, draws critic raves

Arts & Extras: Indie film 'The Swerve,' made in Roanoke, draws critic raves

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With movie theaters operating at limited capacity because of the pandemic — and many closed — casual moviegoers might well have missed the debut of “The Swerve,” a harrowing family drama filmed in Roanoke.

If “The Swerve” flew under the radar when it debuted on streaming platforms last month, it certainly wasn’t for lack of critical praise. This film produced by Tommy Minnix, a 1986 Cave Spring High School graduate — and a son of retired Roanoke County supervisor and school board member Fuzzy Minnix — has a score of 100% on RottenTomatoes.com.

For everyone reading this who isn’t a film nerd, Rotten Tomatoes is a website that compiles a score based on whether reviews of a film are positive or negative. A score of 100% means every single review of the film is positive, a rare feat, and perhaps one that no film shot within Roanoke city limits has achieved before.

Written and directed by Tommy Minnix’s husband, Dean Kapsalis, “The Swerve” stars Azura Skye (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Riverdale”) as a wife, mom and high school teacher named Holly who seems boxed into a corner by the expectations of her family and the roles she is expected to play by society, her eyes haunted as her children interrupt her and her husband takes her for granted.

“The movie is a character study of this woman, a week in her life and how she goes off the rails,” Kapsalis said.

“We kind of classify it into psychological horror, psychological thriller territory,” Minnix said.

“Or a very dark drama,” Kapsalis said.

However it’s classified, the film has impressed writers who watch movies for a living. Roger Moore of Movie Nation called Skye’s performance a “‘star is born’ statement.” In her four-star review for RogerEbert.com, Sheila O’Malley agreed, writing, “This is a great performance.”

“I cannot recommend ‘The Swerve’ enough,” wrote Lorry Kikta of Film Threat. Yet she also offered a qualification that “It is one of the most depressing horror films I’ve ever seen, so maybe don’t watch it if you’re trying to feel super-sunshiney.”

Minnix didn’t graduate from Cave Spring or Virginia Tech with ambitions to make movies, but became hooked after spending three months as an extra in the 1993 period drama “Sommersby,” which was shot in Lexington and Appomattox and starred Richard Gere and Jodie Foster.

Minnix moved to New York and started taking acting classes. Through a mutual friend he met Kapsalis. Their first short film with Minnix producing and Kapsalis writing and directing, “Jigsaw Venus,” appeared in 2001.

Seeking an inexpensive way to shoot the script for “The Swerve,” Minnix ended up contacting another Cave Spring graduate (class of ’87) turned actor, writer and director, Andrea Shreeman, who in turn put the couple in touch with Roanoke people who have professional movie-making experience.

“We ended up deciding to film there because I knew a lot of the people there already,” Minnix said. In 2015, “we came on down, recruited tons of family and friends.”

A couple of crew members stayed at the South Roanoke home of artist Gerry Hubert and his husband, Josh England. Some of Hubert’s art appears in the movie, as do paintings by Eric Fitzpatrick and the late Mary Jane Burtch. England has a small role as an exterminator. Fans of Roanoke Valley community theater will recognize actress and frequent play director Kris Sorensen in a slightly larger and crucial role as Holly’s doctor.

In casting the lead role, the filmmakers discovered that many prospects found the scale of the role intimidating, as Holly appears in every scene. “It’s a very big role. She’s in the movie from start to finish. It’s all about her.” However, Skye “was super-eager for it.” When they saw her audition, “we were just blown away because she really embodied the character so well,” Minnix said.

During filming, “she committed 150%, and you can see the results on screen,” Minnix said.

Kapsalis intends “The Swerve” to serve as a meditation on mental illness. The idea arose from his experiences “having witnessed firsthand, growing up around strong women, and then as I got older saw that they had been dealing with the emotional and physical scars of abuse and mental illness and anxiety.” In this movie, “I wanted viewers, audiences to feel the anxiety of this character.”

The film could be considered a horror movie, but not in the traditional “things that go bump in the night” sense. “I find the themes of the film frightening,” Kapsalis said.

Even with its grim ending, “The Swerve” has resonated on a personal level with at least some of its viewers. In reviewing the film, a few critics have shared their own struggles with mental illness and praised the movie for its unflinching honesty.

“It is an amazingly cathartic experience,” Kikta wrote.

“The Swerve” is available on Prime Video, iTunes, VUDU, Google Play and other streaming services.

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