Thyrone Tommy’s feature debut, Learn to Swim, is all vibe with little substance but it nails the milieu of twentysomething jazz musicians in Canada.
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Thyrone Tommy’s Learn to Swim is the rare film in which you can actually believe that the jazz musician characters — saxophonist Dezi (Thomas Antony Olajide) and singer Selma (Emma Ferreira) — actually play their instruments and listen to jazz. Dezi will throw on a moody record while repairing a trumpet. Selma will test out versions of a song she’s working on while sitting on the floor in the living room with Dezi. They hang out with their instruments in hand, dreaming about a future of better paid gigs and exciting collaborations. They aren’t chasing bleeding fingers from playing the drums too hard too fast, but looking for a way to express themselves through their art.
The film is all vibe: blue and red lights, soft focus, and unexpected geometries fill the frame. That extends to the music, too, which is more about setting a tone than revealing a backbone to riff off of. Though set in a very specific milieu — twentysomething Black and Latinx aspiring musicians — there’s a strange placelessness and timelessness to the film. Where in Canada (where the film is set) can you still light up a cigarette in a jazz club? Nobody has cell phones or digital music players; they take polaroid photos and listen to records. It’s almost nostalgic in how it elevates the tactility of physical media, in a film that is itself very tactile.
But Learn to Swim meanders around, like a riff that never figures out what it’s riffing on. The film switches between a present tense story of a grieving Dezi with a tooth infection and the past tense story of his dreamy romance with Selma. Though Ferreira is luminous in every scene, she’s given little to do beyond playing a mentally ill Manic Pixie Dream Girl, while Dezi’s snobbery about music is never really backed up by an obvious talent on his part. Tommy is clearly a gifted visual stylist, but the film needed a stronger script to really come together.
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