Fifteen years ago, Swimfan came to the big screen. Made for $10 million, Swimfan grossed $34 million worldwide. This tale of a swimmer (Jesse Bradford) who engages the wrong girl (Erika Christensen) in a one night stand, was essentially Fatal Attraction for the teen set. And, as hyperbolic as this may sound, it was also the best film of 2002. Even if it doesn't make IMDB's most underrated list for the Aughts.
Okay, so it came nowhere near an Academy Award nomination. Hell, it didn't even pick up an MTV Movie Awards nod. Does anybody believe that the best picture winner for any given year is really THE best picture? If we ignore that idea altogether, then it is plausible Swimfan was indeed the best overall film released all throughout 2002. It may not have done the biggest box office, barely anyone remembers it now, but what it did in a cerebral sense, and with its visceral imagery, is worth more than any amount of money. And it's a damn lot more fun than Beautiful Mind (the movie that actually won Best Picture that year). Serious, Erika Christensen's emotionally damaged deviant is way more interesting that Russell Crowe's math genius gone mental.
Swimfan captured imaginations. It helped launched the careers of Bradford, Christensen and Shiri Appleby. Okay, the purists out there are going to say that Bradford's career was made by Bring it On. Others are going to say that Christensen's career was really pushed forward by the Oscar-winning drama Traffic. The point I'm trying to make is that ultimately, Swimfan was overlooked. And has been for the past decade and a half. The way it dealt with a young woman not allowing herself to be a one night stand, was both poignant and groundbreaking. In fact, so solid was Erika Christensen's portrayal of Madison Bell, that this character would become the gold standard for jilted, teen females. She became an almost feminist rallying cry at a time when things like The Lilith Fair had wilted. This says nothing of Jesse Bradford's performance. As Ben Cronin, he is both a willing participant and unwilling victim. The 'every teen' that gets in over his head with the wrong girl. Classic stuff. Yet, pushed to the boundaries of what cinema was in the 2000s. I dare you to name a better thriller.
In 2002, some of the biggest films of all time were released. Especially leading up to that year. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. All of them were unleashed on the American movie going public. On the Academy Awards side, some of the biggest films were not just A Beautiful Mind, but also Training Day, Monster's Ball, and Gosford Park. It's very easy to see why a movie starring Russell Crow in arguably his best performance might render Swimfan a limp fish. The same could easily said about Denzel Washington's brilliant turn in Training Day, or, about any film directed by Robert Altman. But they don't contain the schlocky chutzpah Swimfan managed to squirt across the screen in one big yelp of OMG goodness.
The fact is, Swimfan isn't like any of those films. That's precisely why it is just so damn good. The film is a classic redemption tale. It is almost biblical in it's telling. The character of Ben Cronin has gotten his life together after being embroiled in drugs and criminal behavior. He's got a solid girlfriend (Shiri Appleby) and he's a great competitive swimmer. All of his progress is put into jeopardy when Madison Bell shows up on the scene. Suddenly, Ben finds himself cheating on the girl he loves. Ben and Madison agree this is a one time thing, but of course it isn't. In these kinds of movies, it never is. And so the thrills begin.
Usually, this is where films like Swimfan fall apart. After the affair. That's definitely not the case here. What ends up happening is an almost Hitchcockian-type twist on a very familiar story. We find out more about Madison's background and just how she came to be in Ben's life. And it is here that Swimfan rises above the other films in 2002. Yes, despite not having a budget anywhere close to Attack of the Clones, Chamber of Secrets or A Beautiful Mind, Swimfan manages to transcend (swim past, if you will) these films by taking a boldly cerebral route. We see and feel real emotions displayed by Bradford, Christensen and Appleby. It is almost like something John Cassavetes or Henry Jaglom would've made. And the realness that is displayed by these characters through its 85 minute run time is palpable. You can feel it in your teeth. It gets in your bones and turns them into hollow plexiglass tubes. It itches. A spider bite on the stomach at 5 am that has you rushing to the hospital.
Swimfan is a cavalcade of action sequences and superbly written dialogue from writers Charles Bohl and Phillip Schneider. These scenes work because of the flawless direction of John Polson. His film acumen is so sure-handed that after Swimfan, he would do Hide and Seek which saw him directing Robert DeNiro, no less. He would also go on to direct such high profile TV shows as The Good Wife, Fringe and Lie to Me.
None of the films mentioned above are as perfectly weaved together as Swimfan. Sure, they made more money. Yes, those movies went on to far greater acclaim. However, do they hold up like Polson's sweaty affair? Not at all. Swimfan is a movie that, like Madison Bell, simply can't be denied. From a cinematic standpoint, a story standpoint, and a character standpoint, Swimfan is the total package. All wrapped up in a nice glossy sheen that hits the eyes like a dish of hard candy at Christmas time. It is text and subtext all on screen at once, exploding like white pearls of saliva from a supermodel's mouth as she takes that spoon, ready to dig into a dish of Fosselman's ice cream. It's a delicious treat no one should deny themselves. If you watch all the other movies released in 2002 (or even the rest of the 2002s), you will really see that, while they start off well, they ultimately peter out. They get weighed down by the weight of their story and storytelling devices. Not Swimfan, and that's why it deserves to be called the best movie of 2002, and the best thriller of the 2000s. If you don't give me that, then at least as far as overlooked movies go. It is screaming to be resurrected, dusted off, and streamed tonight. So stop fussing around and do it!
Swimfan never comes close to losing it's own race. It keeps perfect pace with itself. The intensity of this film never lets up. It ever lets go. And it never fails to achieve what it sets out to. Once it becomes clear just what Madison Bell's intentions are, nobody is safe from her wrath. And for viewers, that means Swimfan is a movie that truly stands the test of time. Today. Always.