Movie Review: When Jazz and Love Don’t Mix — “Learn to Swim”

Jazz — on record, in live performance and played in studio sessions — dominates, suffuses and sets the tone of “Learn to Swim,” a dark and dreamy romance set against the Toronto jazz scene.

First-time feature director and co-writer Thyrone Tommy lets the silky smooth sounds of the music — by Chester Hansen, Tika Simone and Leland Whitty — contrast with the fragile mental state of Dezi and the fractious, boozy love life that is rarely more than a distraction for a man seemingly married to his sax.

Thomas Antony Olajide is Dezi, a brilliant player and arranger who doesn’t suffer fools or collaborators gladly. Fellow players with more drive than he has put up with a lot — indifference, rudeness and downright hostility — just to get him to show up, sit in and stay committed to their quintet’s success.

It’s all about “getting signed” to a record deal.

Dezi is all about the sets and the solos, working with new vocalist Selma (Emma Ferrreira), whose spoken/sung vocal improvisations might be their big break.

But invite a guitarist to sit in without telling him, try a song in a key he didn’t designate, and on-the-spectrum temperamental Dezi shows up — or more likely, storms out.

He’s got an abscessed tooth to nurse, a drinking problem and a new neighbor (Andrea Davis) disturbing his peace — he plays records while running his instrument-cleaning side hustle. The last thing Mr. Wrapped-Too-Tight needs is a romantic entanglement. Selma? She’s sexy and fiery enough to make the sparks and Spanish profanity fly when these two hook up. It certainly makes for interesting rehearsals.

“I don’t know why you’re not getting this key. You sound like a dying mouse.”

Having history with bassist June (Andrea Pavlovic) and club barmaid Jesse (Khadijah Salawu) just makes everything messier, even as it speaks to what women who are drawn to talent will put up with from a man.

Director Tommy and co-writer Marni Van Dyk tell the story of this downbeat romance with less dialogue than music, sketching in a romance and its many distractions in scenes that can make you wonder how much of what he’s feeling and experiencing is just in the guy’s head.

It’s a slight and simple story, but the way it’s folded into the music lends it weight and scale.

Davis, playing an older woman who vexes the new tenant in her apartment building, mothers him and flirts with him, is a stand out among the supporting players.

And Canadian stage actor Olajide, who broke out with this Toronto Film Festival darling, which got him cast as one of the stars of the upcoming “Interview with the Vampire” series, makes a fascinating, obsessive jerk, an artist lost in his music but no better managing his career than managing his romance or his alcohol intake.

His is a brooding performance that makes us come to him, the way the great ones — the ones whose acting is like great improvisational jazz — often do.

Rating: unrated, sex, alcohol abuse

Cast: Thomas Antony Olajide, Emma Ferreira, Andrea Davis, Andrea Pavlovic and Khadijah Salawu

Credits: Directed by Thyrone Tommy, scripted by Thyrone Tommy and Marni Van Dyk. A CBC Films/Array/Netflix release.

Running time: 1:33

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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