Ladies and gentlemen, the award for the most hardcore training montage in a movie belongs to The Swimmers. Sure, Rocky IV finds the boxer running through snow and pulling a sled, but this film has its heroine doing box jumps, lunges, and push-ups in a refugee camp, using a water jug as weight and a belt as a resistance band. Directed by Sally El Hosaini (My Brother the Devil), The Swimmers combines two of cinema’s most inspirational genres — the sports movie and the survival drama — into a single moving film. If it weren’t based on the real experiences of two sisters, one might question how realistic a plot that has its protagonists escape war-torn Syria, save a sinking boat of refugees in the sea, and go to the Olympics, all in one movie. Yet The Swimmers’ basis in fact is its greatest strength, alongside the persuasive performances of the real-life siblings who portray the heroes of the title.
In 2015, Yusra Mardini (Nathalie Issa) and her older sister, Sarah (Manal Issa), are training intensely for the games in Rio the following year, despite the turmoil surrounding them in Damascus. It encroaches upon their daily lives, as they see peers die in the violence, and it inches ever closer to them and their family. They decide to flee to Germany together, convincing their party-loving cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) to join them on the arduous journey. Their father/swimming coach (Ali Suliman) cautions them against taking a boat to Greece, but in the moment, they feel they have no other choice. What comes next seems inevitable, before they even see the patches on the raft that can’t possibly hold everyone who has paid for passage across the Aegean Sea. The sisters use their skills to rescue everyone on board, but survival isn’t enough. Once they reach safety, Olympic dreams still beckon, especially to Yusra.
The idea that the butterfly — the most difficult swim stroke — is Yusra’s best event is a telling detail. Her dedication drives her, even in the face of impossible odds. Sarah isn’t as singular in her focus, but sheer stubbornness buoys her in challenge after challenge. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters aren’t developed as deeply as they come in and out of the young women’s lives, but these two are the heart of the film. Offscreen sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa play Yusra and Sarah, and their interactions lend authenticity to the portrayal. The Swimmers nicely captures the varied texture of the sisterly dynamic, highlighting the push and pull between them.
The Swimmers is not an especially subtle film. Ysra and Sarah’s father explicitly defines the personality differences of his daughters in the film’s first moments, though the rest of the movie shows rather than tells who they are. David Guetta’s “Titanium” is playing at a party in a Damascus scene, with Sia singing, “I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose/Fire away, fire away,” as bombs fall in the background. Yet its lack of subtlety doesn’t undermine its power. This is an incredibly moving film, with multiple moments reducing me to blubbering. However, despite all the trauma that Yusra and Sarah survive, The Swimmers isn’t grim. They find joy and laughter, even amidst terrible hardships that just keep coming.
There may be a metaphor in the film’s endurance-testing 144-minute running time, but poor pacing serves as the biggest threat to its impact. It trudges through some scenes, then speeds through others, giving too much detail and then not enough, both in its plot and its characters. While director El Hosaini doesn’t have a strong handle on this element of the Netflix production, she does succeed with the film’s visuals. Colors are vibrant and saturated, and she and cinematographer Christopher Ross (Yesterday) provide a sense of scale with aerial shots, not only of the Aegean sea but also of the immensity of the migrant crisis. Beyond the personal story of the Mardini sisters, the moments that underscore the magnitude of the issue are the most compelling in the film.
While The Swimmers never moves as fast or as gracefully as its heroines, it does generally serve their story well. El Hosaini’s drama is pure inspiration, focused on elevating the impressive experiences of two women who have impacted the world for the better.
“The Swimmers” is streaming Wednesday on Netflix.