TIFF 2021 Review: A Musician Must Find His Rhythm Amidst the Blues in Thyrone Tommy’s Rapturous “Learn to Swim”

Dezi (Thomas Antony Olajide) should know better when a bartender informs him that Selma (Emma Ferreira), the woman who joined him for drinks after making beautiful music together at a club in “Learn to Swim” has actually left when it only seemed like she was excusing herself for a moment. In Thyrone Tommy’s bewitching character study, you imagine that the appeal of being a jazz trumpeter for Dezi was the ability to improvise, picking up on what others were laying down, but even after matching Selma beat for beat on stage, that synchronicity is difficult to come by off of it when she’s always a little more eager to get to places than he is and a little less precious about staying once she does and she’s clearly got his number, knowing what it’ll take to get him to stick around even when he threatens to leave.

When Dezi and Selma stay within the same orbit, a romance is inevitable, but one that appears destined for heartbreak, particularly when the dynamics of the group of fellow artists they play with are also their immediate circle of friends. Dezi has an increasingly bad toothache to suggest he’s on the wrong path, an abscess requiring alcohol soaked cotton balls to be placed inside his cheeks that would discourage most others from continuing to play, but not him, making his decision to go headlong into a relationship with Selma and its multiple red flags seem like a fait accompli. Refreshingly, it isn’t Selma who is demonized in “Learn to Swim,” despite her knowingly evil temptations of tostones and booze when Dezi says he’s got to be somewhere, but rather Dezi’s inability to see the bigger picture, with Selma’s elusiveness only a part of a potential future that never seems quite within reach.

You can’t argue with just how seductive the moment is for Dezi when Tommy is content to let entire jam sessions roll out uninterrupted, with cinematographer Nick Haight roaming around the beautifully low-lit rooms to catch the energy coming off the instruments with incredible intimacy. Allowing the moments when he gets lost in the music to punctuate a daily life full of starts and stops, Tommy brilliantly lets you know what makes the chase worth it for Dezi, even as you see how damaging it’s been to put those instances of what could be ahead of making choices about what’s directly in front of him. The result is a film brimming with various pleasures, even with the anguish that Dezi must endure to find his own, and beyond the glorious musical performances, Tommy presides over some delightful tete-a-tetes between Dezi and Selma, who Olajide and Ferreira ensure are as passionate in argument as they are in love, as well as with his nosy neighbor Sal (Andrea Davis), whose desire to enlist him for various errands is particularly irksome to someone who chose a life to studiously avoid responsibility. Dezi may not have found his way quite yet in “Learn to Swim,” but its writer/director sure has in this dazzling debut that settles into the soul like the work of an old pro.

“Learn to Swim” will next screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival at the Vancity Theatre on October 3rd at 8:45 pm and October 5th at 12:30 pm. It will also be available virtually throughout Canada from October 1st-12th.