Well, it is officially that time of the year when studios start cranking out the films they hope will receive some awards attention. Netflix has a stable of strong contenders this year, and Nyad is the first to be released. This is a film that is mostly flying under the radar despite starring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster. I really didn’t expect much out of this film, and I think because there were no expectations, no real buzz behind this film, that I was surprised how caught up in the story I found myself. If you are a fan of underdog stories, this is definitely for you, but the true spotlight belongs to Foster and Bening, who are here to show us all that they not only still have what it takes to carry a film, but they also deliver some of their best performances in ages. In 1979, when Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) turned 30, she made her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. That’s basically 110 miles of water she attempted to cross. It was meant to be the feat that she would retire her long distance swimming career on, but unfortunately she never made it to Florida. We see this through old news footage before it cuts to thirty years later, just before she’s about to turn 60. She’s an angry older woman who is obsessed with her former glory and decides that she wants to see if she can do the impossible, to complete that epic 110-mile swim. This time she’ll have her best friend, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) as her coach and #1 cheerleader. Immediately this feels like a movie-of-the-week kind of story. We’ve all seen this before, where someone wants to attempt something difficult or impossible, and over the course of the film they are confronted with challenges, but they persevere, and in the end they are a success. We know these underdog stories, and for some reason we still love them. I’ll admit they are a guilty pleasure despite how formulaic they can be. But rarely do these films have the caliber of actors like Bening and Foster, and honestly this film is 100% driven by these women and their fantastic performances.
It’s when this film gets to Nyad’s first (well, second) attempt to make her epic swim that I feel this film really elevates itself on a technical level. The way the open water swim is filmed really helps capture just how small we are in such a large and hostile body of water. The film does a great job at showing us just how dangerous this lofty goal is as she has to contend with weather, sharks, and jellyfish on top of the physically grueling 50-plus hours the swim is expected to take. The makeup on this film does an impressive job as we see the toll the salt water can take on the body. We also see Diana fail and try again, and again, and again. While it’s easy to respect her determination, Diana is a really difficult person to like, and at times you’d expect her team to walk out on her because of how egocentric she can be, and then there is Bonnie, who puts up with the borderline abuse from her friend. The filmmakers kind of cheat to earn some sympathy from the viewers as we get flashbacks to Diana’s childhood and the sexual abuse she encountered from her swimming coach she was enamored with. These flashbacks can be unsettling for some, and in a way it distracts from the main story, but I get why it’s included. It’s simply a personal hurdle she was forced to overcome, and if she can overcome that, what’s 110 miles of water by comparison?
The film’s most ironic mistake is how the directors chose to focus so much on Diana and Bonnie that they barely spend time with the rest of the crew that helps Diana attempt her epic swim. Yeah, sure, you can argue that the film is called Nyad, so she should be the focus of the film, but the whole purpose of the film was to show it wasn’t all about her, and it took a team to make it all happen … so why not show this whole team in action? Am I being nitpicky here? I don’t think so, but at the same time, I wouldn’t say it changes the quality of the film.
Despite all the trauma and drama on screen, this is still a feel-good movie. Rhys Ifans puts in a solid performance as the ship captain and navigator who is there to guide Diana on her way to Florida. While this film may not appeal to younger audiences, the message is a strong one for those of all ages. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this film. Come awards time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bening gets a nomination for the physical performance she delivers, and then there is Foster, who really nails this part, and I feel hasn’t been this good since Silence of the Lambs.
Nyad premieres on Netflix November 3rd.