The Big Bad Swim
The cast of "The Big Bad Swim," the film playing this Saturday night at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. Photo courtesy of M.V. FILM SOCIETY

Testing "The Big Bad Swim" water: it's warm and funny

By Brooks Robards - November 8, 2007

Watching a group of phobic non-swimmers learn to like the water doesn't seem natural material for a successful film comedy. But "The Big Bad Swim," coming to the Katharine Cornell Theatre Saturday, Nov. 10, thanks to the Martha's Vineyard Film Society, mixes up a brew of surprising warmth and humor.

First-time feature director Ishai Setton and screenwriter Daniel Schechter have put together a homespun charmer. The characters acquire a lived-in depth and authenticity, and their dialogue is smart and believable. "The Big Bad Swim," which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, has appeared in 20 film festivals and won its share of awards. Could it be that it has not found a distributor or general release because of its slightly soggy title?

As the film begins, instructor/trainer Noah Owens ("All My Children" star Jeff Branson) appears in the locker room of the New London Recreational Center in Connecticut, gloomily popping pills. One by one, the members of his adult, first-time swimmers class explain why they've never taken the plunge before.

As a child, teacher Amy Pierson ("Friends" featured player Paget Brewster) saw her cousin drown. Blackjack dealer Jordan Gallagher (Sundance acting award-winner Jess Weixler) just never got around to learning. Martin and his wife Joanna recently built themselves a new pool. Paula insists she knows more than the rest of the class and mostly seems on the make. Macho Carl the cop refuses outright to go in the water.

Before long, several members of the class drop out. But those who stick with it get beyond their fear of the water and grow into characters with something to be proud of. They also develop a sense of camaraderie.

The first step is getting into the pool; next comes blowing bubbles in the water. Then there are buddy exercises. The bright blue pool water with its crisply geometric lane markers proves unexpectedly appealing in cinematic terms. Between scenes of the class learning how to feel comfortable enough in the water to swim come vignettes from some of the characters' private lives.

Noah decides to quit his anti-depressant pills, his therapist, and his job. He heads to the pound for a new dog and comes home with a little Shih Tzu mix. Not that his life turns into pure sunshine. An accident that ended his hopes for major success as a diver has made him lose his bearings.

For that matter, nobody's life has much sunshine. Amy finds herself in the throes of losing both her husband and her job as a high school calculus teacher, and it turns out that Jordan has a second job as a stripper in a sleazy bar. It doesn't help that her younger brother David (the director's brother, Avi Setton) and his friend Hunter want to shoot a video about Jordan for their high school English class, taught by Amy's philandering husband Paul ("Guiding Light" star Grant Aleksander).

The three central figures, Noah, Amy and Jordon, start out lonely and single (about-to-be in Amy's case). The rest of the class consists mostly of geek or loser types who fade into the background.

"The Big Bad Swim" maps out a world where people have a hard time connecting. As the swim class progresses, though, so do friendship and romance. Amy and Jordan find they have more in common than meets the eye and start hanging out together. Heading to Mohegan Casino where Jordan works, Amy takes up with a much younger gambler, and Jordan finds herself attracted to Noah. Noah's new dog acquires a name.

Pursuing these connections keeps the story from becoming too claustrophobic. The cinematography benefits as well, with opportunities for plenty of well-placed set pieces like the overhead shot of a roulette wheel and another of Amy working the slots. One of the funniest visuals comes at poolside, when a line of junior swimmers files past the grown-up class.

"The Big Bad Swim" is not a perfect movie. The plotting lacks originality. Except for Noah, Amy and Jordan, the characters tend to fall into predictable, one-dimensional types, like an older East Indian who always uses expletives to describe his attitude toward water, or the teenager who talks in a monotone and has been dragged to the class by her mother.

The film's rough edges don't detract that much from the appeal of its characters and the cinematography. So many of today's films tackle grim topics, like the war in Iraq, the life of crime or the abduction of a small child, that it's a pleasure to smile at the antics of these ordinary but likable people.

"The Big Bad Swim," Saturday, Nov. 10, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8; $5 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information call 774-392-2972 or visit