Review: ‘The Impossible Swim’

Inspiring stories of fearless swimmers

6 mins read

The Impossible Swim
(Canada, 47 min.)
Dir. Ali Weinstein, Larry Weinstein

16-year-old Maya Farrell hopes to follow in the footsteps of the legendary swimmers Marilyn Bell and Vicki Keith. Like them, she wants to glide through the waters of Lake Ontario. Farrell hopes to bring their achievement to a next generation by matching their monumental marathon swims across Lake Ontario. The task would be an ambitious endeavour, even if the creatures were born with gills and fins. She aims to cross an 88 km path in the Great Lake, which can takes a seasoned and well-trained swimmer upwards of a day sailing through the cold waters. As chronicled in The Impossible Swim, however, Farrell’s ambitious challenge makes her a hero: the doc shows the remarkable courage and dedication one requires to set such an ambitious goal and to strive to achieve it.

Her journey is especially compelling in that the doc introduces us to Farrell on her second attempt. As the young swimmer tells directors Ali and Larry Weinstein, she previously tried to swim across Lake Ontario, but was forced to stop partway through due to inclement weather. She tells how the swim challenged her physically and mentally, and we see her frustration over having the swim cut short. Determined not to let the lake beat her again, she trains even harder for a second round.

Farrell proves herself a great character as she lets the doc capture her dedication and vulnerability. During training exercises, test swims, and moments of family time at home, she shows herself to be a humble character eager to test her limits and inspire others. The doc also finds a nice subtext in Farrell’s quest to overcome her grief at the recent death of her mother, a fact that underlies her training as she summons strength from within herself.

While Farrell wrestles with the absence of her mother, The Impossible Swim extends her story to that of two women who previously conquered the lake. Vicki Keith mentors Farrell during her training and motivates the young woman with her own tales of strength and determination. Among the many world records Keith holds are the title of being the first woman to swim across Lake Ontario and back, completing the English Channel in butterfly strokes, and the first person to swim across all five Great Lakes during a single summer. The doc dives into Keith’s history, offering archival footage and interviews, as she relates the challenges that await Farrell in the waters ahead. The film finds an inspirational thread in the mentor-mentee relationship as Keith eagerly prepares her young protégé to take the same plunge she once did. Records are not made to be broken, but shared.

The same goes for Marilyn Bell, who, at age 16, became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. Now 81, Bell gladly participates in the film as she sees a younger version of herself in Farrell and provides moral support. Bell offers an emotional interview as she recalls the daunting and empowering feeling of crossing the lake and becoming a hero in the eyes of so many people. She also speaks about how her swim allowed her to bridge the distance between herself and her own mother, and Farrell’s quest to cross the lake resonates as Bell sees how her accomplishment taught generations of women that they could be as strong as they believed. It’s touching to see the intergenerational portrait at the heart of The Impossible Swim.

The doc has an extra intergenerational element as it’s a collaboration of doc veteran Larry Weinstein (Ravel’s Brain) and his daughter, Ali Weinstein (Mermaids). It’s fun to see aspects of both talents behind the camera since The Impossible Swim offers a thematic continuation of Ali’s debut doc Mermaids, which looked at various people who found comfort by dressing as finned aquatic creatures. Some beautifully shot sequences in the pool and on the lake give audiences a sense of the environment that provides so much comfort to Maya, but also lets them feel the chill of the water and the scale of her ambitious challenge. At the same time, the doc has the playfulness of a Larry Weinstein film, particularly in the segments that look back at Keith and Bell’s swims with a mix of archival footage featuring newsreels and old videos, along with dreamy underwater sequences that convey Keith’s comparison of the swim to an out of body experience. One can’t say where the work of one Weinstein ends and the other begins. It’s nice to see the teamwork between generations of like-minded enthusiasts resonate both in the story and in the production. Swimming with a group is always better than swimming alone.

The Impossible Swim airs Wednesday, February 27 at 7:30 P.M. ET on TSN as part of the Engraved on a Nation series.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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