Learn to Swim

By: Trevor Chartrand

In this feature directorial debut of Thyrone Tommy, Learn to Swim focuses on the failing relationship between a stubborn jazz saxophone player Dezi (Thomas Antony Olajide) and an up-and-coming singer, Selma (Emma Ferreira).  The film plays with time and takes place both before and after the relationship has failed.  I hesitate to compare the film to 2009’s 500 Days of Summer, simply because Learn to Swim takes a much more sophisticated, and less in-your-face approach with the time displacement tricks.

The film follows jazz musicians, and the filmmakers evidently structured Learn to Swim the same way you would arrange a complicated jazz song;  complete with sporadic and random flourishes, and confusing, disjointed time signature changes.  Those who appreciate the jazz genre of music for its complexity should take an interest in this film, if only for its original music (arranged by Chester Hansen, Leland Whitty and Tika Simone).  However, the average moviegoer would likely walk away from a movie like this with passive disinterest. 

The film features a cast of mostly amateur actors who stumble uncomfortably through each line delivery, as if they are just reading the script for the first time in front of the camera.  Collectively, the actors’ performances come across stilted and forced, and lack a much-needed sense of passion.  In fact, the actors often appear bored and passive throughout Learn to Swim, leaving much to be desired overall.  Their musical talents, though, are on point.

It also doesn’t help that the characters tend to be irritating.  They’re the type of people who burst into song in public to draw attention to themselves.  Learn to Swim is a film about music, sure, but it does not appear to be intended as a musical.  No matter how talented a singer may be, most people aren’t interested in hearing random folks belting out jazzy licks from the table next to them in a restaurant.  The characters (especially the two leads) have an admirable ambition to them, but they also exude an unlikable sense of entitlement.

Interestingly, the music-minded filmmakers shot the film with the square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, with the idea being that every frame could be an album cover.  This is all well and good, but the film is often darkly lit and fails to draw the eye, especially when a lot of time is spent in Dezi’s dingy apartment.  The film has a repetitive visual pattern to it as we jump back and forth in time and, while repetition may work in music, it grows stale in Tommy’s movie.  The combination of dark lighting, overused sets, and a repetitive shot list makes for a bland viewing experience overall.

The visual storytelling throughout the film has a number of weaknesses, most of which stem from visual flourishes trumping screen logic.  One sequence in particular is especially frustrating, when Olajide responds with confusion at the sound of someone knocking on his door.  He appears dumbfounded for quite some time, as if Dezi has never heard a door knock before and doesn’t know the appropriate societal response to that sound.  When he finally does spring to action, it turns out it’s not a knock at the door, and his landlady is actually putting up Christmas lights downstairs.  It takes a very long time for Thyrone Tommy to share this revelation with the audience.  Perhaps the sin here is on the sound designer, who could have made different choices to ensure it’s clear we’re hearing a hammer pounding nails, and not something as commonplace as a door knock.  Or, the editor could have cut to the landlady sooner, to help us understand what we are hearing.  Either way, this is not the only instance of this in Learn to Swim – the filmmakers often make assumptions that an audience could not possibly discern on their own, muddying the storytelling in favour of, dare I say, pretentious artistic gestures.  

The music featured in Learn to Swim is good, I suppose, though admittedly this critic doesn’t have an ear for jazz. That does, however, tie into my belief that this film wasn’t made for me, and it isn’t something that suits my taste. Though I can recognize how Thyrone Tommy and their production poured a lot of time and effort, heart and thought into this project.

Despite that appreciation, Learn to Swim is still a very flawed film. The audience may be intrigued to examine a relationship in a deliberately disjointed way, but Tommy’s production lacks overall cohesion.

Filmmaker Thyrone Tommy will be in attendance at TIFF Bell Lightbox screenings on:
Friday, March 25 – 7:00 pm
Saturday, March 26 – 7:00 pm


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