Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara Mardini (Manal Issa) lives in the increasingly dangerous city of Damascus in the mid-2010s. They are competitive swimmers, trained by their father (Ali Suliman), and hoping to compete in the Olympics one day. Yusra is the more athletically ambitious and generally more reserved of the sisters. While Sara is out partying, Yusra is worried about the bombs falling on the horizon. They decide to flee Syria and plan to go to Germany, where they can use a family process to bring their younger sister and parents too. Traveling with their cousin (Ahmed Malek), they board a boat to Greece, and one of the most harrowing scenes in years unfolds. As an overcrowded boat held together by masking tape and beans begin to sink, the engine dies and the waves pick up, it’s hard not to feel the emotional pull of what’s unfolding and think about how many refugees don’t survive such perilous journeys.
Of course, Yusra and Sara survive. There is no film otherwise, which is something tragic to think about – the Yusras and Saras that didn’t make it across the Mediterranean. After a few more perilous stops on the road to freedom, “Swimmers” pivots again – it could really be used to teach the three-act structure what with its “Damascus” chapter, “Journey” chapter and “Germany” chapter. The last one is the sports movie when they meet a swimming coach (Matthias Schweighofer of “Army of the Dead”) and realize their Olympic dreams may not be over.
The Issa sisters are such a gift to El Hosaini and this film as a whole. Nathalie has the perfect mix of vulnerability and courage, while Manal has a sly charm that suits Sara perfectly. I kept wishing “The Swimmers” would challenge them more instead of giving them shallow dialogue because I’m so sure they could have delivered. It feels like someone at Netflix worried so much that audiences wouldn’t be drawn to a refugee story with few recognizable stars that they leaned harder than they should on the melodrama, inspirational movie clichés, and overly polished Netflix sheen , making all of this film’s varied settings look pretty much the same. The story of Yusra and Sara Mardini is so inherently powerful and the women who play them so talented that “Swimmers” never needed any of the cinematic life jackets to stay afloat.