By Bonnie Eissner
On Sunday night, about 30 people sacrificed convenience for community to watch the new Netflix biopic “Nyad” at New Plaza Cinema, an intimate, Upper West Side art house film theater, rather than their living rooms.
The screen of New Plaza’s theater in CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College on West 67th Street is not huge, but it’s proportional to the room. There’s not a bad seat in the house. On Sunday night, when the theater was less than half full, people even chose to sit in the front row.
New Plaza, a nonprofit venture, began in 2018 when film lovers on the Upper West Side banded together to create an art house film theater to replace the shuttered Lincoln Plaza Cinema. The current location is the organization’s sixth since its founding, said Gary Palmucci, New Plaza’s film curator and general manager, in an interview with West Side Rag.
Palmucci collaborates with a mostly volunteer team to operate the theater, which screens films from Friday afternoons through Sunday evenings and hosts virtual lectures and Q & A film talkbacks. Movie tickets range from $12 to $15 with a $1 booking fee.
What the venue lacks in frills — there’s no popcorn or concessions and only water is allowed in the theater — it makes up for in charm. A volunteer usher greeted customers at the door. Palmucci was in the theater talking to people as they settled into their seats.
Just before going into the booth to play “Nyad” on Sunday night, Palmucci spoke to audience members about the film. He acknowledged that people had questioned why the theater was showing a movie that was available on Netflix. “Some people still want to see movies in a theater with an audience,” he said, and added, referring to “Nyad,” “I could see from the trailer that people responded emotionally to it.”
Onscreen, Annette Benning convincingly portrayed the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who gained fame in 2013 with her death-defying and still controversial feat of swimming 103 miles from Cuba to Key West, Florida, at age 64 — a quest that had eluded her at age 28, and which, in the film, she believes will bring meaning to her life as she approaches the late years of it. Along the way, Diana, a willful and tempestuous soul, attracts a band of self-sacrificing supporters, notably her close friend and former lover Bonnie Stoll, played by a leathery skinned Jodie Foster, who with some arm twisting and a dose of poetry becomes her volunteer coach and confidante.
The lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” which Diana reads aloud to Bonnie early in the film, soon after Bonnie surprises her with a 60th birthday party, set the film’s theme and become a mantra of sorts for Diana and those whom she sweeps into her whirling path: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
At its heart, the film is as much about a nail-biting, life-defining quest, which we already know the outcome of, as it is about friendship and platonic love. In addition to Bonnie, who not only trains Diana but also serves as her emotional sponge and therapist, Diana draws in the salty but endearing navigator of her support boat, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans).
Fortunately, though, the movie, which is based on Nyad’s 2015 memoir, “Find a Way,” doesn’t drown in sentimentality. The directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the team behind “Free Solo,” working with screenwriter Julia Cox, pack the story with sufficient suspense to make watching the film a riveting experience. There are demons and dangers galore, not only sharks, box jellyfish, sea-sickening swells and storms, and fierce ocean currents, but also Diana’s own hubris.
While Diana is less alone and introspective than the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” the film’s message about the resilience of the human spirit resembles the novel’s. The movie might have been titled “The Old Woman in the Sea.” And with its contrarian characters and vivid depictions of the ocean and its fury, the film, like the novel, has a propulsive quality. It merits being seen on a large screen, or at least one that’s larger than my TV.
As the credits played at the end of the film, audience members conferred with each other about it. Some spoke about likely Oscar nominations for Benning and Foster. One woman who, before the film started, had recognized an audience member from their days swimming at the West Side YMCA, was clearly energized by the film. “Back to the pool,” she said to her fellow swimmer.
Schedule, pricing, and ticket purchasing details are available on the New Plaza Cinema website: www.newplazacinema.org
Subscribe to WSR’s free email newsletter here.