“The Swimmers” is an old-fashioned against-all-odds sports drama set against the dramatic backdrop of Europe’s Middle Eastern refugee crisis. Director and co-writer Sally El Hosaini makes this conventionally unconventional “feel good” story of the Mardini sisters‘ trials and triumphs entertaining, if perhaps not nearly as dramatic as their real experiences.
Sarah Mardini and younger sister Yusra were upper middle class Syrians trained by their swimmer dad to seek Olympic glory.
“You aren’t a true athlete unless your aim is the Olympics,” he lectures them (in Arabic and English).
Sarah (Manal Issa) may be older, but Yusra (Nathalie) is the one where the family’s true hopes lie. Dad never made it to the Olympics, because, well, there’s a reason Syria isn’t known for swimmers. Lack of water, mainly.
But they train and compete and share the occasional “I HATE you,” because they’re sisters. Bossy, independent Sarah ducks out of Yusra’s “surprise” birthday party — after ruining the surprise — to watch online videos of The Arab Spring coming to Syria. It’s 2011.
It takes a while this turmoil to devolve into civil war, and to touch the Mardinis. An air raid interrupts one of their meets, with a small bomb landing right in the pool, mid-race.
Luckily, it doesn’t explode.
The good life in secular Damascus is over, and the family starts planning their escape. Dad’s priority is getting the two oldest children into Europe. Because OLYMPICS. He gets together cash, and their DJ cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) is convinced to escort them to Germany, where they hope to work the system to get the rest of their family out.
The most fascinating third of the film is their long, tortuous escape, by plane and bus, boat and car and truck and foot, hiring one sketchy “coyote” after another, facing arrest, deportation, rape and/or death at sea, and not in that order.
The dread El Hosaini builds into their boat crossing ordeal is real edge-ofyour-seat suspense filmmaking. Just as interesting are the ways these tests reveal the sisters’ characters.
Sarah is a born leader, assertive, compassionate and organized. Yusra is faster in the water, but more of a follower.
The film’s third act puts them in Germany, stateless, longing to get into the pool and fulfill their father’s dreams. Matthias Schweighöfer plays a young coach who reverses his quick dismissal to take an interest in their plight and take them on.
That’s a pleasant over-arching theme of this formulaic film. Greeks may be unwelcoming as their coast is overrun with undocumented foreigers, and Hungarians downright alarming. But kind, helpful people from country after country stood up and pitched-in when millions of Syrians and others from the Middle East and Africa flooded north in the 2010s and a modern crisis — conflict and climate-change driven — was born.
The Issa sisters, both seasoned performers, make these young woman plucky and convincingly athletic, to say nothing of the sibling rivalry that requires no real acting. The real Mardinis, like their actress counterparts, are beautiful young women and one wonders what the film does not — how much of a role their telegenic qualities played into their attention and refugee-status “stardom.”
And their tougher real-life stories don’t necessarily correspond to the film’s convenient and upbeat stopping point. But with her second feature — after the British street gang thriller “My Brother the Devil” — the Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker Hosaini proves you don’t have to film in Hollywood to cook up a decent “Hollywood Ending.”
Rating: PG-13, sexual assault, combat
Cast: Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Matthias Schweighöfer, Ali Suliman and Ahmed Malek
Credits: Directed by Sally El Hosaini, scripted by Jack Thorne and Sally El Hosaini. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:16