Freewheeling London-set debut is a confident opener to Berlin’s Generations sidebar

Last Swim

Source: Berlinale

‘Last Swim’

Dir. Sasha Nathwani. UK. 2024. 96mins

It would take a hard heart indeed not to find itself tugged by Last Swim, a British story of late-teen anxiety that makes a confident opener to the Berlinale’s Generation section. With a vividly engaging lead from Deba Hekmat (recently in Luna Carmoon’s Hoard) and a relaxed, bustling ensemble vibe, Sasha Nathwani’s drama might seem to tick various boxes that would endear it to a sensitive young audience – angst, friendship and empathy in a multi-ethnic social context – but it does so from a spirit of candid sincerity and a freewheeling energy. 

Candid sincerity 

Known for 2021 short Raj’s Story and assorted music videos, Nathwani scores a modest but focused triumph in this debut, which draws on his own Iranian heritage. Last Swim’s emotionally fine-tuned thoughtfulness should see it make an impact on a broader international front.

The film is about school leavers who are facing an unknown future – or worrying whether they have a future at all. The action takes place on the day when, aged 18, British school students receive the all-important A-level exam results that will determine their immediate fate – a day that enjoys almost mythical status in UK culture and media.

In particular, this is the story of Ziba (Hekmat), a British-Iranian girl with a passion for astronomy. The film starts by wrong-footing us rather calculatedly: at a university interview, a tweedy academic asks her to define the ‘Hubble Constant’. She hesitates – then, of course, defines it eloquently, and wins a place at University College London. Ziba seems set for a brilliant future, but we know, as she sets out to celebrate results day with her schoolfriends, that something serious is on her mind.

Glimpses of Ziba’s family feature Narges Rashidi, from Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, as her supportive mum, while her friendship circle comprises hip, tough-talking bestie Tara (Lydia Fleming), stoner jock Shea (Solly McLeod) and goofy, tender Merf (Jay Lycurgo, from Netflix’s The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself). When it comes to the results, Ziba has the most to celebrate but is visibly downhearted. Even so, the crew sets off on a trip round London, equipped with a detailed itinerary that Ziba has prepared, set to end with them watching a rare meteor shower – followed by a solitary moment of truth for her. But also on board is someone new to Ziba – Malcolm (Denzel Baidoo), a younger footballer who is facing his own life-changing disappointment. By and by, growing empathy and attraction between Malcolm and Ziba seem likely to change the shape of the day that she has planned so meticulously.

Sharply scripted by Nathwani and Helen Simmons, a former Screen Star of Tomorrow and a producer here (as well as on other recent works  including Hoard and Julia Jackman’s Bonus Track), Last Swim also has a palpably improvised component in the friends’ genially-pitched running banter. Whether or not their route – by car, then on pushbikes – strictly makes geographic sense, Last Swim is shot (one suspects, with a touch of guerrilla ingenuity) around locations not too over-exposed on the UK screen, including parts of Hampstead Heath and the upmarket streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb, notably the notorious ‘Billionaires’ Row’ of Bishops Avenue, with its luxury ghost-town mood.

What’s worrying Ziba is clear from the start, and further illuminated by ominous night-time inserts. But the film never feels too obvious or too calculating. Strong characterisation across the board makes for a feel of generational authenticity, while Hekmat supplies a consistent intensity running through her character’s fluctuations of mood. Ziba is a genuine intellectual heroine, and Hekmat conveys a sense of how her introversion and seriousness might set her apart in a hedonistic high-school culture. An of-the-moment dance-oriented soundtrack includes UK acts Four Tet, King Krule and Fred Again plus vintage Iranian pop artist Kouroush Yaghmaei.

Production companies: Screencrib, Caviar, Pablo & Zeus

International sales: Indie Sales

Producers: Campbell Beaton, Bert Hamelinck, Nisha Mullea, Sorcha Shepherd, Helen Simmons, James Isilay

Screenplay: Sasha Nathwani, Helen Simmons

Cinematography: Olan Collard

Production design: Julija Fricsone-Gavriss

Editing: Stephen Dunne

Music: Federico Albanese

Main cast: Deba Hekmat, Lydia Flemming, Denzel Baidoo, Solly McLeod, Jay Lycurgo, Narges Rashidi