Die Glitzernden Garnelen / The Shiny Shrimps

The Shiny Shrimps are perhaps the world’s worst water polo team. They would love to go to the LGBT Olympics in Croatia, but aren’t really up to it. But they have a vague chance with a new trainer.

Matthias is a 33-year old swimmer approaching the end of his career. He would like to swim one last time at the World Championships, but although he’s getting some good results they’re not quite good enough. After another second placed finish, an interviewer asks one more stupid question and he comes out with some homophobic abuse.

As penance, Matthias is given the gig of making the Shrimps good enough to get them to Croatia. At first he does the bare minimum, but as the training goes on, his estranged daughter sees something in him to love, maybe for the first time in years. The Shrimps, initially reluctant to be associated with a known homophobe, actually start to improve under his tutelage, winning a tight victory against a team of scary lesbians.

The team is made of distinguishable characters – a cynic might say that each has been given a cliché to inhabit, though that wouldn’t be entirely fair. So there’s the transitioning one who insists on sewing the jackets and organising the choreography, there’s the young one who’s new to the team and wishes that gay lifestyle were a little slower and less complicated.

There’s the one with a husband and twins at home, who have given him the ultimatum – water polo or the family. As the kids’ first birthday approaches, he sends increasingly frantic skype messages claiming to be at a business conference. There’s the flirtatious one who has a picture of Ryan Gosling on his arse, and there’s the black one who is given fewer lines than most of the others, though he does get a righteous speech towards the end.

There’s the ageing activist, who despairs at how the younger generation seems more interested in partying that demonstrating (though he is reminded that his role on the ACT-UP demos was mainly to make the sandwiches. “But I have agoraphobia”, he splutters). Finally there’s the one who has cancer who has chosen to not take the next course of chemo but to enjoy what’s left of his life.

It all feels like a recipe for one of those feel-good films about not-very-good sports teams who conquer the odds, where everything is predictable and we are swamped in gooey sentimentality. Or like all those indistinguishable films about swimming clubs that came out last year and were thoroughly underwhelming. And yet although we experience very little that we haven’t expected, it has the necessary charm to make it a lovely film.

I’m not sure how much this is to do with the fact that the characters are gay, which somehow helps give a little jeopardy to their characters. The threat of gay-bashing, familial rejection and social distrust pervades the film. In the early scenes of Matthias travelling with the others, he looks distinctly uncomfortable. When someone comes up to him at a service station and asks if he isn’t that swimmer who came out, he looks ready to die.

And yet, although the film is clear that homophobia is still a real problem in modern “liberated” society, it does not wallow in victimhood. Being gay is not just about being beaten up and ostracized. Its about dancing and lip-synching and going out partying when you’re supposed to be resting before tomorrow’s big match. Its where partying with your mates is sometimes more important than sporting success. Its about oppression, but its also about having fun.

Most films of this type falter at the success or failure of the team. If they’re really so bad, how can they dramatically improve in such a short period of time? Even if they have chanced upon a world class trainer, surely they’re just as useless as the ever were and team spirit can only bring you so far. Well, while trying to avoid plot spoilers, I think that this film copes with this intrinsic problem honourably and doesn’t have us thinking that the writer has been dealing from the bottom of the deck.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to this one, and was ultimately motivated by reading that the alternative (Black Christmas) is, apparently, truly dreadful. Yet it was better than I was expecting and much more. The idea on which it is based is a handful of dust, but the way in which this dust is structured into something of real substance is a joy to behold.

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