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Other Shore, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Swims along the surface of potentially deep waters."
3 stars

"Are you a swimmer?" asked the man at the ticket booth who knew full well I was there because I had a season pass for this film series. I said I wasn't, and he pointed out that even in that case, Diana Nyad was "an inspiring story. An inspiring story." The funny thing is, I'm not necessarily sure director Timothy Wheeler felt that way by the time he finished his documentary on her attempt to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys after turning sixty.

She had tried it before, back in 1978, when she had made a name for herself not just by winning races but for completing other marathon swims. She retired soon after, moving into broadcasting and not setting foot in the water for almost thirty years before announcing her intent to try again in 2010, at the age of sixty. This is not a thing to be attempted lightly, although her trainer and longtime friend Bonnie Stoll thinks that the mental aspect may be the most important, and Diana has that in spades.

Perhaps too much so. There comes a point in activities like this where the challenges go from "risks" to "dangers", and the way Nyad continues to talk herself into pressing forward certainly seems to cross the line from admirable daring to something that feels more like hubris by the time everything has been said and done. Stoll certainly seems to think so - or at least, that's the impression she givesin the final edit. It makes for an uneasy last act, as the audience can feel a movie that started out with the intention of being inspirational becoming a cautionary tale. It's a shift which is kind of fascinating and unexpected, but the ending doesn't really satisfy either; the end of the narrative literally happens alongside the closing credits, leaving no time for Nyad, Stoll, and company to ruminate over what it means.

This apparent change in attitude happens over the course of a sort of two-pronged approach, both of which give the viewer just enough of a glimpse at something interesting that he or she has likely learned something. On the one side, there's Nyad herself. Though famous in her time and circles, she's not quite so well-known now, and the frankness with which she talks about her early life and the monsters that populated it may surprise. There's probably a story there, which she's likely told in books, interviews, and speeches, that connects this abuse, drive to excel, and retirement to the offhand comment that she hasn't been in a relationship for twenty years and her stubbornness where this swim is concerned. The Other Shore isn't the work to connect those dots, though, and could maybe make a little more effort to get in Nyad's head to show how a person with that sort of drive ticks.

It's a bit more successful when it comes to showing the mechanics of long-distance swimming and the training for it. That Nyad has a staff of thirty-five working with her as she makes the attempt isn't wholly surprising, but Wheeler does a good job of showing how all this help doesn't diminish what she accomplishes much at all. he doesn't stop the film very often to explain things, but makes sure just enough context is present for the audience to understand. He doesn't quite build the actual scenes of Nyad making the swim to something tremendously suspenseful, but he captures enough of the drama to make the danger real.

Above all, though, what is most memorable is probably the physicality of Diana Nyad and how it reflects what she's doing. When she appears, it's fair if the first words that come to mind are along the lines of "stocky" and "solid", albeit with a face that glows with more energy than you might expect. Get her in the water, though, especially the open ocean, and she seems to elongate and streamline, like this is what she's meant to do. On the other hand, by the time she's through swimming, it will be hard to imagine someone more literally exhausted. It's an intriguing parallel to the tone of the movie, planned or not.

Is "The Other Shore" inspiring? Well, that may depend what you think of people who voluntarily make their way through jellyfish-infested waters well after when they should have learned their lesson. It its story well enough, and should at least satisfy the curiosity of those interested in Nyad's accomplishment without knowing much about it beforehand.

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originally posted: 10/10/13 22:02:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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