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BERLINALE 2024 Generation

Review: Last Swim

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- BERLINALE 2024: A gaggle of London school leavers contend with the first day of the rest of their lives, in Sasha Nathwani’s solid debut

Review: Last Swim
Deba Hekmat in Last Swim

From its opening scene in particular – set within the halls of an intimidating UK university – Last Swim [+see also:
interview: Sasha Nathwani
film profile
]
feels like both a positive mirror image and an inadvertent response to last year’s notorious Saltburn [+see also:
film review
film profile
]
. Both films’ teen characters are not lacking in ego or a certain self-centredness, yet Saltburn posits a Manichaean world where this youthful drive merely exists to assert one’s will over the other; Last Swim’s ensemble would push you aside on the street, sure, but only because a friend might be in need further ahead.

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Premiering on the opening night of the Berlinale’s Generation strand, Last Swim – helmed by music-video pro and general up-and-comer Sasha Nathwani – is not bothered about immense plot complexity or even zeitgeist-y import: it has a simple, if grave, conflict and just a 24-hour timespan to explore, and the characters have problems and personas that feel uncannily down to earth. Take our central heroine Ziba (Deba Hekmat): the brightest of her school chums, with the best final exam results and a plum university place guaranteed to study Physics. “Results day” – that key rite of passage for UK teens – should feel like a victory parade. Yet a serious illness, implied to be cancer, that she’s receiving treatment for threatens to make such things as puny in stature as the quantum mechanics that fascinate her so.

Her mates – a weirdly and maybe unrealistically good-natured bunch – do not have this drive: their years of educational development are, in a word, history. So Ziba has to spend results day in this uncanny, liminal space, her promising future in danger of evaporating in its first moments of being. Malcolm (Denzel Baidoo) – a friend of a friend who ends up tagging along with them – also knows the sting of deferred hope: he’s been dropped as a professional football trainee and has to break the news to his poor mother within sight of Ziba, who – growing in amorous feelings – accompanies him up to his housing-estate flat. However out of sight these years may be for its eventual audiences (although the film’s young-adult appeal is certainly strongest), the endearing teenage melodrama fully registers: Nathwani and his co-screenwriter Helen Simmons really distil those years and put them in a particular geographical context as well, with London depicted accurately as a sprawling “city of villages”, which can engender a truly spontaneous rhythm.

Despite Ziba’s wrestling with her mortality, Nathwani and Simmons plump for an uplifting, redemptive conclusion; they pivot on the edge of an existential void, yet don’t leave us languishing there. Connected to the sometimes-unrehearsed feeling of the young characters’ camaraderie – feeling that they met one another hours before, with the prickliness of real, long-term friendships not present – Last Swim can feel like a slice of life that’s ultimately too slender and undernourishing. But then we think back to an early sequence in what looks like West London, where Ziba insists on treating her pals to a particular falafel, at a particular, modest hole-in-the-wall kiosk; the dramatic irony as she bites into what could be her last great meal, with the friends somewhat bemused by the significance, is the stuff of truly promising character-centred and realist filmmaking.

Last Swim is a UK production, staged by Caviar and Pablo and Zeus. Indie Sales represents its international sales.

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