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Last Swim Film Review: Charming Debut

A shot of Deba Hekmat's face with the London underground behind her in the film Last Swim

Sasha Nathwani’s Last Swim is a bittersweet vignette of a teenage awakening, full of turbulence, laughter, and poignant realizations about what we all live for.

Sasha Nathwani’s debut feature film Last Swim won the hearts of the jury at the 74th Berlin International Film Festival. What earned it the Silver Bear for Best Film in the Generation 14plus category is its touching celebration of youth and the overcoming of fear in the face of painful hardships.

Last Swim captures a fateful day in the life of British-Iranian teenager Ziba (Deba Hekmat), which is momentous and crucial for her future on multiple fronts. On one hand, she and her friends are receiving their final exam results, which are decisive for their acceptance into college programs; on the other hand, she has secretly decided to make her own life-changing decision to escape a greater suffering she doesn’t talk about. What ensues is an eventful, meticulously planned trip across the hidden gem spots of London and the unraveling of Ziba’s internal torments.

Throughout its runtime, Last Swim elegantly dances between masked melancholy and wholesome humor while knowing exactly how to channel the messy vivacity of being young, overwhelmed with fear of life and joy of life. 

Ziba is a likable, flawed character with a secret. She appears and exits the screen with a clear objective, clear motivation, and clear obstacles standing in her way. Her decision-making as well as her transformative arc visibly tick all the boxes of a formulaic character-building checklist. We hit all the common beats on the route of her development, but the persuasiveness of the story hides in its technical and artistic execution.

The urban setting breathes life into this coming-of-age journey. There’s an indescribable spirit to the film due to the way it portrays the vibrancy of a London summer, reminiscent of the recent energetic (although very differently stylized) rom-com Rye Lane (2023). The city feels as young as the characters roaming its streets.

The effortlessly gorgeous cinematography (Olan Collardy) works in tandem with the actors’ naturalistic performances, giving the film a casualness that makes it more delightful to watch and more inviting to invest in the friend group’s buzzing chemistry. The interactions between the four come across as genuine and relaxed, as if they aren’t trying too hard, in the best way possible.

Lydia Fleming, Deba Hekmat, Denzel Baidoo and Jay Lycurgo cycle in the film Last Swim
Lydia Fleming, Deba Hekmat, Denzel Baidoo and Jay Lycurgo in Last Swim (© Caviar, Pablo & Zeus / Berlinale)

Tara (Lydia Fleming), Merf (Jay Lycurgo), and Shea (Solly McLeod) luckily do not tumble into the traps of the coming-of-age genre and its frustratingly stereotypical portrait of the sidekicks, bound to the protagonist by the script and the script alone. Ziba’s friends are not defined by particular teenage archetypes. Their distinct qualities are not written in to serve purposes. They are written in to flesh out their humanity, crafting them into three-dimensional, layered, confused young adults the audience could believe.

The original score (Federico Albanese) is an everpresent element of Last Swim: urban, energetic, and most importantly, a culturally balanced infusion of Ziba’s British and Iranian heritage, blending in more commercial beats with the traditional, serving as subtle, complementing colors on a backdrop for Ziba’s individuality. 

Sasha Nathwani’s background as a music video director quite visibly comes through in his multiple slow-motion “happy moment” montages of Ziba smiling and laughing with her friends, which grow a tad redundant once we pass the third one. Their emotional impact diminishes with every next attempt at conveying the young innocence of those moments with the same exact technique. 

Towards the transition into the second act, the friends are joined by an unfamiliar acquaintance named Malcolm (Denzel Baidoo), whose involvement in the group becomes an important catalyst for Ziba’s self-discovery but never cements its necessity more than just on a narrative level. What I’m referring to is not the character dynamics he creates or is written in, but the natural integration of his storyline to the point where it matches the rest. The barrier between Malcolm and the four never really recedes completely. The chemistry there remains forced until the end, especially in contrast to the effortless chemistry of Ziba, Tara, Merf, and Shea, and especially after the film’s abrupt emotional shift in the third act. 

With all its good and bad, Last Swim is an impressive debut feature film from Sasha Nathwani, who already displays refined control over his artistry through the lens of a sentimental letter about growing up in London and coming to terms with one’s own mortality and appreciation of life.

Last Swim premiered at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival, where it won the 2024 Youth Jury Generation 14plus Crystal Bear for Best Film.

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