Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"An astute, intelligent character study which neatly captures what may prove to be an important turning point in social history."

The issue of gender segregation in sport has never been more pertinent than it is today. In the week before this film was released, a trans girl won two state sprinting championships without having undergone the hormone treatment that would remove any masculine muscle mass advantage. Her father argued that what mattered was not the winning but the ability of all kids to take part that mattered, something we often hear in other contexts, but is society as willing to live by that maxim as it often pretends? Many schools don't just have separate girls' and boys' teams, they have wholly separate sports. At Miles' school, volleyball is only available to girls - and to add to the problems this causes, playing volleyball is his only hope of getting a scholarship that will enable him to escape from his small town.

Things should have been easier for Miles (Tim Boardman). Upon the death of his philandering father he discovers that they money set aside for his college fund has been squandered. Everyone is sympathetic, suggesting alternatives like community colleges, but it's not easy to be gay in a small community like this, even with institutional support. It's not easy to be ambitious, either. Well meaning teachers and counsellors don't understand his terror of the suburban dream. He's set his sights on Chicago, escape, a life on his own terms. He isn't going to let gender rules stop him.

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In many ways a highly conventional, Disney-style live-your-dreams fable, this is an interesting medium through which to take on such a challenging subject and, indirectly, broader issues around what it means to be a boy, and how America's celebration of competition and social mobility can coexist with a drive for equality that forces people to acknowledge a complex map of inborn difference. It succeeds largely because of Boardman's sensitive performance in the lead and strong support from Molly Shannon as his mother. The young actor strikes a perfect balance between showing us the boy who is used to giving way to the authority of others and the man he is becoming, ready to take a stand.

There's an interesting intergenerational narrative here, with the girls on the volleyball team happy to accept Miles (a realistic scenario these days) but adults struggling to understand why rules which defined their lives seem to mean so little now. The film effectively builds in social media and its importance to Miles' social life and sense of himself, and presents us with comedy when his mother secretly gives a gay chat room a try, observing Miles for inspiration as she makes moves towards rekindling her sex life. Boardman and Shannon have great chemistry and the unconventional yet loving mother-son bond at the heart of the film gives both their characters a solidity that grounds their storylines.

If you're looking for a sports film, you may find this disappointing because there's relatively little actual volleyball involved, but it's an astute, intelligent character study which neatly captures what may prove to be an important turning point in social history. Through its focus on small communities and small decisions, it serves as a reminder that social change doesn't always involve marches and angry politicians, but happens all around us. Director Nathan Adloff keeps his camera up close, presenting most of the film in mid-shots. Only at the end does he let us see the wide, flat landscape that surrounds Miles' home, and let the viewer try to glimpse what might lie over the horizon.

Reviewed on: 13 Jun 2017
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In a desperate bid to get the college scholarship he needs, a teenage boy joins the girls’ volleyball team.

Director: Nathan Adloff

Writer: Nathan Adloff, Justin DM Palmer

Starring: Tim Boardman, Molly Shannon, Stephen Root

Year: 2016

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US


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