In “Nyad,” the titular character is entitled, mean, self-centered and treats people around her terribly… and she’s our hero? Supporting actors Jodie Foster and Rhys Ifans manage to keep the film moving along, but the main subject, played passionately by Annette Bening, is one who is difficult to connect with and root for in this modern take on a sports drama.
A still Oscar-less Bening could be a possibility for traction in the best actress race – at least, Netflix hopes so. With four career nominations to Bening’s name, the streamer believes the fifth time could be the charm with her turn as a marathon swimmer who achieves the impossible in the drama.
Premiering at the Telluride Film Festival one day shy of the 10-year anniversary of Nyad’s famous distance swim from Cuba to Florida with the assistance of a shark cage, the film was introduced by co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and their two children. A post-screening Q&A was conducted with the real Bonnie Stoll, Nyad’s swim coach who is played by Foster. Producers Andrew Lazar and Teddy Schwartzman and editor Christopher Tellefsen also took part. Nyad herself did not attend because the author and media commentator is a member of the striking SAG-AFTRA union.
After winning the Academy Awards for the adrenaline-inducing documentary “Free Solo” (2018), directors Chin and Vasarhelyi make their narrative feature directorial debut with “Nyad.” Written by Julia Cox, the film details Nyad’s quest to complete a 53-hour, 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida, through the open ocean, without any protection from open water sharks.
Long a respected veteran, Bening has been regularly recognized for her performances with Oscar nominations. Her run began with her supporting actress nom for Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” (1990), though she lost to Whoopi Goldberg for “Ghost.” She followed that up with best actress noms for “American Beauty” (1999) and “Being Julia” (2004), losing both times to Hilary Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby.” Her last nom came for her acclaimed turn opposite Julianne Moore in “The Kids Are Alright” (2010). Natalie Portman prevailed that time around for “Black Swan.” Coincidentally, Moore and Portman co-star this year in another Netflix awards contender “May December.”
Likable characters tend to do half the work for an overdue performer seeking their first statuette. Add in the impact of recent L.A. Times story that raises some questions about Nyad’s accomplishment, and it may be enough at this early stage to make Oscar voters look around for other options.
Foster, on the other hand, is best in show, as the coach who serves in many ways as the emotional punching bag of our heroine. Foster has garnered the same number of Oscar noms (four) during her career as Bening. In the Hollywood game for over five decades, Foster has won two best actress statuettes, for “The Accused” (1988) and for her work in best picture winner “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).
Ifans, who plays navigator John Bartlett, gives the movie a warm heart and center, which helps give the audience permission to have empathy for Diana. It’s still uncertain if Ifans has enough in this role to land his first-ever Oscar nomination. Nonetheless, he’s someone that you take with you after credits roll.
“Nyad” is set to open the Hamptons International Film Festival on Oct. 5.