'Swan Song' review: Mahershala Ali leads solemn cloning drama

The two-time Oscar winner stars alongside Naomie Harris, Glenn Close and Awkwafina in Apple TV+ production.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Cameron Turner is sick and he's not going to make it. He decides to undergo an experimental procedure to ensure the future of his family: He'll clone himself, and quietly insert his replica into his life to carry on as if nothing has happened. What his family doesn't know won't hurt them. 

Or will it? There are huge moral and ethical questions to wrestle with in "Swan Song," writer-director Benjamin Cleary's meditative debut feature. But Cleary handles them with an assured hand, and what emerges is a quiet, soulful, mournful drama about moving forward and continuing what you've built, even if you're not physically able to do so yourself. 

Mahershala Ali and Awkwafina in "Swan Song."

Two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali plays Cameron, a graphic designer in a near future where tech has progressed to the point where driverless cars are the norm and robots serve breakfast on the train during the morning commute. 

It's during one of those commutes where Cameron meets cute with Poppy (Naomie Harris, who co-starred with Ali in "Moonlight") over a chocolate bar that Cameron assumes is his, in a scene that's played perfectly by Cleary. Soon they're together and they're raising their son, and Cameron is quietly dealing with a terminal illness. He's secretly meeting with Arra Labs, headed up by Dr. Scott (Glenn Close), which is hard at work making him a clone which will have his memories, his mannerisms and the health he does not have, and will assume the day-to-day duties of Cameron's life without anyone being the wiser. 

So, what's the problem? That's the question at the core of "Swan Song," which forgoes, well, alternate sci-fi plotlines — there's no worry that the clone has a screw loose or is secretly a serial killer — and focuses on a rather sizable moral quandary: can you lie to your family to protect them from emotional devastation? Is a lie protection, or is it just a lie? And can science build a better human? 

These are difficult, gut-wrenching questions, and "Swan Song" handles them with grace and solemnity, and Ali gives a quiet, purposeful and layered performance at the center of the film. (Awkwafina is also exceptional, as another patient going through the cloning process.) Cleary delivers a recognizable looking future where these questions might present themselves. What is the answer when there aren't any easy ones? "Swan Song" follows one path and lives with the consequences. 



'Swan Song'


Rated R: for language

Running time: 112 minutes

On Apple TV+