Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara Mardini (Manal Issa) live 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 someday. 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, planning to go to Germany, where they can use a family process to bring their younger sister and parents over 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 prayers starts to sink, the motor 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 do survive. There’s no movie otherwise, which is something tragic to think about—the Yusras and Saras who didn’t make it across the Mediterranean. After a few more dangerous stops on the path to freedom, “The Swimmers” pivots again—it really could be used to teach the three-act structure what with its “Damascus” chapter, “Travel” chapter, and “Germany” chapter. The final one is the sports movie as they meet a swim coach (Matthias Schweighofer of “Army of the Dead”) and realize that their Olympic dreams may not be over.
The Issa sisters are such a gift to El Hosaini and this movie as a whole. Nathalie has the perfect blend of vulnerability and courage while Manal has a sly charm that fits Sara perfectly. I kept wishing that “The Swimmers” would challenge them more instead of giving them superficial dialogue because that’s how confident I am that 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, and so they leaned harder than they had to on the melodrama, the inspirational movie clichés, and that overly polished Netflix sheen that makes all of this film’s varied settings somehow look mostly the same. The story of Yusra and Sara Mardini is so inherently powerful and the women who play them so talented that “The Swimmers” never needed any of those cinematic lifejackets to stay afloat.