Nyad review: Annette Bening and Jodie Foster float to the top of lackluster drama

Nyad, the true story of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad and her determination to swim from Cuba to Florida, has all the trappings of classic Oscar bait.

It marks the narrative debut of award-winning documentarians Jimmy Chen and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo, The Rescue) as they pivot from their nonfiction chronicles of extraordinary athletes to this dramatized biopic. Then there are its two stars — revered actresses Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, each turning in impressive work. But all that pedigree can't save Nyad from its clunky, tepid script.

Packed with archival footage from Nyad's first attempt at the swim when she was 28 and real coverage of her later efforts, it's hard not to feel this would've played better as a true documentary.

The film focuses on the older Nyad (Bening), who, at 60, decides to attempt the swim once more. She recruits her best friend Bonnie (Foster) to train her, and together they assemble a team that includes navigator John Bartlett (a careworn, gruffly lovable Rhys Ifans), scientist Angel Yanagihara (Jeena Yi), and shark expert Luke Tipple (Luke Cosgrove).

NYAD. (L-R) Annette Bening as Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll in NYAD
NYAD. (L-R) Annette Bening as Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll in NYAD

Kimberley French/Netflix Annette Bening and Jodie Foster in 'Nyad'

For Bening, Nyad is an undeniably juicy role, a spiky creature whose single-minded obsession with her destiny often expresses itself as brusque self-centeredness. Bening unsurprisingly put in the work, training in the pool for an entire year before filming. As Nyad, she gives a performance utterly devoid of vanity in her display of both Nyad's exacting personality and the grueling physical toll of her training and efforts. Bening insisted on filming the bulk of the swimming scenes herself — and she gives the film its stakes with every shot of her waterlogged face, cracking lips, and sunburnt eyelids.

It is Foster who is the film's best asset, however. As Bonnie, Nyad's dedicated, loving friend, she's a burst of warm energy and light, while still maintaining a level-headed approach at all times (unless Diana is particularly pushing her buttons). Foster feels free on screen in a way she hasn't in decades, subsumed by Bonnie's love and care for Diana and the ease with which she embodies that complex, enduring friendship.

NYAD. Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in NYAD
NYAD. Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in NYAD

Kimberley French/Netflix Annette Bening in 'Nyad'

The two women also share an effortless chemistry that breathes vitality into their onscreen bond and wholeheartedly sells their decades-long connection. Where Bening's Diana is prickly and difficult, Foster's Bonnie is steadfast and loyal — but every slightest turn of their head or blink of their eyes carries their deep affection for each other in it.

Still, Julia Cox's script is waterlogged from the sheer amount of things it tries to tackle, from the central friendship to Nyad's five attempts at the swim to Nyad's history with sexual assault. The screenplay is based on Nyad's own memoir, Find a Way, and Cox seemingly tried to overstuff the film with too many nitty-gritty details.

There is perhaps a version of the film where all those things fit smoothly into the narrative structure, but this is not it. Instead, it seems to lack focus and its use of visual effects to reflect Diana's hallucinations, as well as the frequent flashbacks to her memories, are clunky and distracting.

NYAD. (L-R) Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll and Rhys Ifans as John Bartlett in NYAD. Cr. Kimberley French/Netflix ©2023
NYAD. (L-R) Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll and Rhys Ifans as John Bartlett in NYAD. Cr. Kimberley French/Netflix ©2023

Kimberley French/Netflix Jodie Foster and Rhys Ifans in 'Nyad'

Nyad's story, particularly her bond with Bonnie and the rest of their team, especially John, is an inspiring one. And kudos to Cox and the entire team for never shying away from the rougher aspects of Diana's personality for the sake of "likability." But Nyad simply tries to do too much. Each attempt at the swim should play like a thriller, the stakes of the moment a breathless sequence, but this is undercut by the pacing challenges in other areas. It is quite the tale of heroism and courage in the face of adversity, as well as the importance of teamwork and never giving up. But that is all diluted with so many things at play.

Bening and Foster are a joy to watch and will unquestionably be part of the Oscar conversation, but despite their best efforts, they can't quite keep Nyad afloat. Grade: B-

Nyad opens in select theaters on Oct. 20 and will be available to stream Nov. 3 on Netflix.

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