Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have earned quite a reputation as documentarians, winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2019 for their film Free Solo. They also earned rave reviews for their film The Rescue in 2021, following the Tham Luang cave rescue. The pair now make their feature film debut with Nyad, which focuses on the real story of Diana Nyad, who attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64 in 2013, having first attempted the feat in 1978. It is intriguing that the pair made the decision to tell this story as a narrative feature rather than as a documentary. It stars Annette Benning as Nyad, with Jodie Foster as her best friend and trainer Bonnie and Rhys Ifans as John Bartlett, their guide.
Nyad had attempted to take on this seemingly insurmountable task at age 28 and failed, giving us a sense of the sheer force of nature pitted against her. Footage of the real events and newsreels is interwoven throughout, never proving overly distracting from the main focus.
Benning and Foster excel, elevating what is an otherwise by-the-numbers, crowd-pleasing take on the story. Benning commits physically, showing Nyad’s determination to achieve the impossible but also imbuing her with a rough edge. Foster is a warm presence, trying to keep her friend grounded. The pair’s chemistry is fantastic, and, in another year, they may both have been shoe-ins for awards. Ifans comes into play quite late on but is always a welcome sight on screen, trying to reckon with Nyad’s stubbornness.
As a narrative debut, this is quietly impressive, with a host of strong support behind the scenes, including composer Alexandre Desplat and Life of Pi Cinematographer Claudio Miranda helping to make up for its more conventional aspects. The audience will likely be kept invested by the performances and the feel-good nature of the story, showing it’s never too late to achieve your dreams.
If far from revolutionary, Nyad is made constantly engaging by the weight of its two lead performances from Benning and Foster, who wonderfully complement each other. The inspiring tale will go down well with audiences and there are plenty of promising signs from the filmmakers should they choose to pursue further feature films alongside their acclaimed documentary work.
Nyad is in select UK cinemas on 20th October and on Netflix from 3rd November 2023.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Nyad here: