Review by Sean Boelman
The Swimmers debuted at the opening night slot of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, where it was met with mixed reviews. Despite having all the cards in its hand to be an inspiring and uplifting film, Sally El Hosaini lacks the directorial vision to do anything with this utterly standard script.
The movie tells the story of two sisters who flee as refugees from war-torn Syria before making their way to the 2016 Rio Olympics as swimmers. There have been plenty of stories about athletes that overcome their circumstances to triumph on the world stage, but the filmmakers massively fumble the ball with this one.
There are significant portions of the film that are utterly cringe-worthy. For example, there is a needle drop early on of the David Guetta song “Titanium” that is one of the most ridiculous, embarrassing moments in any movie this year — and that is just a small indication of the rest of what is to come in the film with its unfitting pop soundtrack and horribly uneven tone.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, much of the rest of the movie is simply boring. The typical underdog sports beats are all hit here in typical fashion, and mixed with a refugee story that should be inspiring but is told in such a bland way that it lacks power. It’s clear that the film has something important to say about the refugee crisis, but this message is lost in a mediocre melodrama.
No one can deny that what the Mardinis did was extraordinary, but the character development is shallow in a way that will prevent the audience from connecting with them beyond their plight. The movie would have benefitted from the sibling relationship between the two main characters to be more fleshed out and affecting.
What makes this even more frustrating is that the film has a pair of real-life sisters in Nathalie and Manal Issa to bring the characters to life. However, the movie doesn’t give them enough to do. Matthias Schweighöfer plays the sisters’ mentor in the third act of the film and feels entirely miscast, as it’s hard to take him as seriously as the role demands.
For the most part, the execution of the movie is pretty straightforward and bland, albeit entirely competent. Apart from the music, that is generally poorly chosen, there’s not much about the film’s style that is memorable — positively or negatively — ensuring that it will fall into the pit of obscurity that comes with subpar biopics.
An inspiring story should make The Swimmers an easy fit for a crowd-pleaser, but questionable execution has made it largely ineffective. The movie constantly pivots between being dull and embarrassing, making it one of the worst movies of the year.
The Swimmers is now in theaters and streams on Netflix beginning November 23.