Director/co-writer Thyrone Tommy’s debut feature Learn to Swim is premiering on Netflix on Monday, August 15th. It’s just the kind of languid, intense story of love and loss that demands to be watched during the most sweltering days of summer. It follows sax player and arranger Dezi (Thomas Antony Olajide), as he reflects on his relationship with improvisational Latina singer Selma (Emma Ferreira). Questions build up. Why doesn’t Dezi play anymore? Why won’t he get his infected tooth taken care of, instead of worrying it like he deserves the pain it’s giving him? Flashbacks to a year before when he was with Selma allow the viewers to slip into Dezi’s memories with him, experiencing the arc of a love that has left him bereft and hopeless.
At first the flashbacks that reveal Dezi’s experiences are a bit confusing, which might create distance in some viewers. When and where is he? As his toothache worsens and his stoicism threatens to eat him from the inside, the switches in time become clearer. It’s just one of many metaphors Tommy is making about the nature of grief and guilt. Dezi is haunted and in more and more pain, but he seeks stronger medicine instead of solving it at its source.
The film sneaks up on you like a really great solo in a long-form jazz performance. It grooves along, melancholy and understated, and then suddenly hits you like Sarah Vaughan’s vocal texture painting, bowling you over and putting you all in your feelings.
A film’s ability to pull you in like that begins and ends with the director and writers, so kudos to Tommy, and his co-screenwriter Marni Van Dyk. It is Olajide’s performance, however, that keeps you riveted. Even as many of the questions are left half-answered, the actor demands the attention of viewers, for better or worse, through Dezi’s experience. He makes us feel as disoriented and emptied out as he does, but somehow also ultimately offers us peace. The script can only go so far. The word may be the word, but that’s some skill right there. Olajide has a future, or he’d better have.
There’s also a Blue Note album cover vibe to Nick Haight’s cinematography. The camera shots and lighting convey a 50s jazz record (in fact, the film is shot in 1:37 aspect ratio). It’s as if the world is limited to the dark of nightclubs, and the angle one might have watching from a front-stage table.
Jazz is the perfect backdrop to both story and score, because like the process of going through grief, jazz can be incredibly complicated or very simple, but to experience it fully, the performer must be fully connected to their emotions. The songs and score are like another character in the movie, and without it, Olajide and Ferreira could not connect to each other or the music with the same depth. Ferriera plays Selma like a vibrating piece of crystal about to burst.
Learn to Swim is the latest acquisition for ARRAY, and they’ve shown themselves once again to be a distributor that chooses well, adding to their recent acquisitions, the critical darlings Jezebel and Burning Cane. They seem to focus on cinematic meditations, and Learn to Swim is no exception. The name, for those who understand grief, is a powerful and apt description of what it’s like to navigate the new world in which someone you love is gone. This movie is so steamy and sad, it is best seen when your air conditioning conks out, or before you watch your favorite consoling comedy.
4 our of 5 stars.