August 15, 2007

The Big Bad Swim: Lapping it up


Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****

What constitutes a "sleeper"? I'd always thought a movie required at least a short theatrical release in major cities to qualify for this overused label. After viewing The Big Bad Swim, however, I'd have to say that any film this good--and this unheralded--is a shoo-in for sleeper status. A dramedy about a group of Connecticut adults (of all ages and professions) taking a swim class, this first full-length film from director Ishai Setton and writer Daniel Schechter simply sneaks up and knocks you--sweetly, quietly--off your feet. Granted, Setton and Schechter have not broken any new ground with their movie, yet neither a visual moment nor a line of dialogue rings false, is pushed to excess or wasted. Many longtime filmmakers, even some who’ve won major awards, don’t get this close to perfection when they try to create a batch of interesting, real human beings.

The performances are so good, down the line, that you may find yourself wondering if the actors were improvising. I doubt it. There is such a surety here of commitment and purpose from the filmmakers, as well as an eye for visual and verbal detail, that it won't take viewers long to relax and realize that they are in very good hands. Leads Paget Brewster (Unaccompanied Minors) and Jeff Branson (the TV soap "All My Children") are probably the most recognizable, but everyone is worth an appreciative nod. Together the cast and creators imbued their flawed and very human characters with remarkable warmth and distinction, without getting sentimental or specious in the process (and there's even a foundling puppy in the picture). Certainly, we'll be hearing more from everyone involved, and soon, I hope.

That a film this good--smart, accessible, enjoyable--was passed over for theatrical release (and the accompanying "fuss" that would draw at least a minor audience) shows a stunning lack of judgment on the part of current distributors. The Big Bad Swim has appeared (and won awards in the process) at national festivals from Tribecca to Maui, Seattle to Rhode Island and internationally from Munich to Karlovy Vary, Avignon and Zurich, and managed one-week releases in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Portland, Oregon, with individual screenings in Chicago and Fort Lauderdale, where it was lapped up by critics and audiences alike. For the rest of us, thank God for DVD.

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Posted by cphillips at August 15, 2007 12:22 PM

James, I can't believe you didn't comment on how incongruous the cover is with the story and tone of this film!


Posted by: Erin at August 21, 2007 7:09 PM

Exactly. I first rented it online and so did not even see the box art. But, yes, it is ridiculous--and typical. Something I left out of my interview with the filmmakers was that, when I mentioned to them that, on the IMDB, the "key words" for the film were "strippers" and "nudity," they said, "Gee, there IS no nudity in the movie." Ah, yes. We know what sells--whether it's actually there or not. (Since then, I have noticed that the IMDB key words for the film have been changed--or at least been added to.) I would have preferred that the box art show that great line-up of characters that this week's Dispatch offers as its lead photo. But then, I suppose, customers might imagine that the movie was the equivalent of "Spellbound" or "Word Play"--but in a water locale....

Posted by: James van Maanen at August 22, 2007 1:37 PM