‘Learn to Swim’ Review: A Tooth Ache and All This Jazz

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At the start of “Learn to Swim,” Dezi (Thomas Antony Olajide) trembles slightly as he puts his saxophone to his lips. The Canadian director Thyrone Tommy cuts from that opening image to a quintet flowing in beautiful sync at a club. The scene grooves. The band’s trumpet-playing leader, Sid (Christef Desir), and Dezi ply their onstage chemistry. A guest vocalist, Selma (Emma Ferreira), takes the microphone promising “I see you. I see you” in a spoken-word riff. And isn’t that the spark of many a romance: Being seen?

Selma and Dezi begin an affair. Although begin is a tricky matter. Because their relationship is recounted through Dezi’s memories, which are themselves refracted through a prism of pain caused by heartbreak and the most mundane of ailments: a tooth ache.

Dezi’s abscess and his swollen jaw signal when he is in the sullen present or occupies the potent, volatile past. Some of this drama’s hurts go beyond the romantic, carrying the weight of the African diaspora. Others come from mourning: Dezi shares a disquieting anecdote with Selma about his deceased mother. And the living, no-nonsense Black women here — Selma’s friend Jesse (Khadijah Salawu); neighbor Sal (Andrea Davis) — hint at a protagonist in need of nurturing.

In this feature directing debut, with a screenplay he co-wrote with Marnie Van Dyk, Tommy works well with his ensemble and is clearly intrigued by emotional states. Or at least the idea of them. “Learn to Swim” is lovely to behold, but the sullen artist at the center feels too often like he’s drowning in melancholia and might take us down with him.

Learn to Swim
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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