Swim Team Review
Swim Team (2016) Film Review, a movie directed by Lara Stolman, and starring Mikey McQuay Jr., Robert Justino, Kelvin Truong, Mike McQuay, Maria McQuay, Rosa Justino, Patty Huang, Steve Jobin, Hayden Schumann, Casey Burns, Vincent Chen, Wesley Flores, Christian Gutierrez, Matthew Liu, and Aaron Lucena.
It’s been almost 30 years since Dustin Hoffman‘s brilliant performance in Rain Man made autism known to millions who likely never would have heard of the condition, yet in spite of tremendous strides made in psychiatric professionals’ understanding of the disorder, laypeople continue to harbor misconceptions about it. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear people describe autism in the way that it’s portrayed in the Barry Levinson film, ascribing to all autistic people, say, Raymond Babbitt’s ability to instantly count hundreds of objects even though only a fraction of people with autism possess such abilities in real life. As remarkable a film as Rain Man is and as invaluable as its exposure of autism was, Lara Stolman offers an updated perspective on the subject with her feature documentary debut Swim Team that has the potential to shift the conversation surrounding it in the way the former film did upon its release.
By exploring the lives of three boys on New Jersey Hammerheads, Swim Team gives us a rare opportunity to see the different ways individuals with autism cope with their condition. While Mikey McQuay Jr., Robbie Justino, and Kelvin Truong all struggle with it, the film never makes the mistake of suggesting that their experiences are the same simply on account of it. The McQuays’ attempts to make sure that Mikey is able to find gainful employment after high school contrasts with Robbie’s efforts to integrate on a social level at his school, which in turn differs from Kelvin’s unease with having to enact the physical and emotional labor being on the Hammerheads requires of him. Rather than purporting to present a single “definitive” account of autism, the movie’s multifaceted approach emphasizes the fact that autism is a spectrum and as such it affects people differently.
Needless to say, the boys are hardly the only ones who have to contend with the effects of autism. Robbie’s mother Rosa and Kelvin’s parents recount the challenges they faced raising their respective sons, reminding viewers that family members of individuals with autism are just as impacted by it as the individuals themselves. While Ms. Justino and the Truongs appear throughout the documentary, Mike and Maria McQuay easily get the most screentime, appearing in nearly as many scenes as the film’s main subjects. As co-directors of the Hammerheads, it’s hardly a surprise though, with the two opening up about not only raising Mikey but organizing and overseeing the team as well. Their perspectives are unique in that unlike Rosa and the Truongs, they are just as responsible for other people’s children as they are for Mikey and thus must balance their commitment to him with their commitment to the other swimmers. While this is something that every sports coach with a son or daughter on their team must do, it’s an even greater task for the McQuays due to their charges’ disabilities.
Luckily, Mike and Maria are more than up for the task. Collectively embodying the combination of grit and understanding necessary to coach the autistic, the McQuays’ come across as compassionate and genuine in their dealings with the Hammerheads. Don’t take this to mean they’re pushovers however: Mike has no trouble raising his voice when he needs to get the team’s attention, and doesn’t hesitate to rebuke them when they engage in inappropriate behavior, as seen when he tells the tic-afflicted Kelvin not to swear at a match. But for every scene like this, there is one like the interview portion where he tears up as he speaks about how Mikey has changed his and Maria’s lives. Indeed, the simple sight of Mike crying shows that there is a kind heart beating beneath the stern exterior and serves as a touching example of how even the strongest men can be moved to tears by the experience of raising a disabled child.
It is precisely this willingness to capture the emotional highs and lows of its subjects that allows the documentary to resonate as deeply as it does. The movie’s access to surprisingly personal moments and locations tells much about the level of trust between the film’s crew and its participants. Kelvin’s mother Patty invites the audience to see holes he once punched in the wall in a fit of rage, not so she can excuse his behavior but so we can see how far he has come by the time of the film’s events. Even more boldly, Ms. Justino permits the crew to record when she explains to Robbie that he is autistic for the first time. As shocking as it is to imagine a parent allowing anyone to record, much less screen, such an intensely private moment, the way in which it is captured feels authentic rather than exploitative, with Stolman’s straightforward shots and prudent decision to forgo background music complementing the scene’s simple honesty.
In this context, scenes in which we actually see the Hammerheads practice come almost as a respite from the weighty discussions with them and their parents. Shot underwater, we see them move with peaceful purpose to the accompaniment of nothing more than the muffled sounds of their swimming. Therein lies the therapeutic aspect for the boys: while they may have problems and issues that not many other people have to contend with, swimming gives them an outlet where they are not only at ease but capable of excelling as well. A lesser filmmaker would have slapped a heavy-handed offscreen narration over these scenes to drive this point home, but Stolman once again refrains from stepping into saccharine territory and permits the serenity of the sequences to speak for itself.
In lieu of patronizing its subjects and pandering to its audience, the movie recognizes that its duty is not to manipulate but to convey what these people have to say to those who want to hear it. There’s no counting cards here, but there’s a real story about real people with autism in Swim Team, and that’s all we really need.
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