Swim Team


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Swim Team
"Its real achievement is the skill with which it balances its inspirational message with an honest portrait of day to day life and what it means to be an athlete."

What should a parent expect when told a child is autistic? According to some lobbying organisations, it's that the child will spend life in an institution, never really able to communicate or interact productively with neurotypical people. According to autistic people themselves, it depends on exactly how their difference manifests, and they may go one to become successful professionals or academics. If there is any external factor that can make the difference, it's the way their parents treat them.

Swim Team follows three young people whose parents refused to accept the prognosis they were given. Together, the adults organised a swimming club that gave their children a chance to socialise, have fun and develop their physical skills. Over time, it became clear that it was also douing a lot more. Not only did the kids love it but they were learning to compete, which gave them a motive for following rules, for developing self discipline, and gave them a sense of purpose in life. Then, as they reached their late teens, something else: these kids could not only compete in events for disabled people, but were potentially good enough to take on anyone.

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Lara Stolman's documentary lets this larger story develop in the background, a classic Hollywood narrative complete with underdog heroes, unexpected setbacks and the dogged pursuit of big dreams. In the foreground are the boys and their families talking about daily life, about school, about hobbies and managing stress. What coms through strongly is that the boys are not being sheltered. Very much participants in family life, as they are participants in telling their stories, they're expected to take on responsibility and make a lot of their own decisions - these kids whom doctors once said would never be able to speak. But one of them hasn't been told that he's autistic. His mother's attempts to broach the subject form one of the centrepieces of the film.

On the festival circuit, this film has delighted audiences and has been well received by young autistic people themselves. Its real achievement, however, is the skill with which it balances its inspirational message with an honest portrait of day to day life and what it means to be an athlete. The appeal of the pool comes across strongly as the camera plunges in and out of the water, and swimmers will be able to appreciate the technique on display. But for all the glossy imagery and positive thinking, there's no escaping the question of what happens after high school or further ahead, when the parents are no longer around. Having shown us these young people's potential, the film hits much harder with its warning about the desperate lack of state-funded facilities for autistic adults.

Well paced and well produced, Swim Team is engaging throughout and would be easy to enjoy as light viewing, but there's more going on beneath the surface.

Reviewed on: 25 May 2017
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The Jersey Hammerheads is a competitive swim team made up of a diverse group of teens on the autism spectrum.

Director: Lara Stolman

Year: 2016

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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