It’s the hot, er, height, of summer, so let’s all get in the pool! Here’s a six-pack of cool queer films featuring swimmers.
“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” (HULU, Kanopy, and AppleTV) takes place entirely during the title character’s (out gay Philly native Cole Doman) 17th birthday pool party. As the film unfolds organically over the course of the day, secrets and lies, both large and small, are revealed. Characters are defined by snippets of dialogue, or an unspoken exchange. One tender scene in the pool has Henry looking with desire at his straight best friend Gabe (Joe Keery), while Logan (Daniel Kyri), a gay teenager, is looking at Henry with the same shy desire. The film is full of such subtle, telling moments. Writer/director Stephen Cone presents the 20 characters and multiple storylines with remarkable dexterity, stylishly employing slow motion, whip pan shots, underwater sequences, and characters directly addressing the camera to visually cue viewers and engage their emotions. As Henry grapples with his unspoken desires in the pool — especially underwater, where he can silently observe the object of his affection — viewers may find themselves holding their breath waiting to see what will happen next. (Queer quotient: 8/10).
“Light in the Water” (available on YouTube) is Lis Bartlett’s affectionate, heartfelt 2018 documentary about the West Hollywood Swim Club, an LGBT organization that was founded in 1982. Back in the days before out gay athletes, there was a need for queer men and women to create a safe space and prove — through competition — that they were, as one interviewee says, “About ability, not sexuality.” The film addresses the “family” these gay and lesbian athletes formed at a time when being out at work could get you fired. As the AIDS crisis started devastating the community (and the swim club), several members recount emotional stories of living with and/or losing friends and lovers to the disease. Bartlett also charts the accomplishments of many of the members, who broke world records — even, in the case of one swimmer, as an HIV+ man. “Light in the Water” revels in the camaraderie of its members, who created the “Pink Flamingo,” a drag tradition at the Gay Games, and were empowered by being a gay team winning at straight meets. The documentary ends by presenting the team’s recent history, which includes straight swimmers, as well as the wedding of two gay members. But what comes across most is the pride and acceptance these athletes experienced being able to be themselves in and out of the water. (Queer quotient: 10/10)
“Liquid Truth” (Kanopy) is a taut Brazilian film, based on a play, about Rubens (Daniel de Oliveria), a beloved swimming instructor who is accused of kissing his pre-teen student Alex (Luiz Felipe Mell), on the lips. Is the child telling the (whole) truth? While the boy’s horrified mother, Marisa (Stella Rabello), rushes to alert parents on social media, Alex’s father, Davi (Marco Ricca), wonders: Is Rubens gay? Rubens boss, Ana (Malu Galli), is not allowed to ask, and Rubens, when he is questioned about his sexuality, responds, “What if I were? What does it matter?” As the thorny situation snowballs, and police are called in to investigate, “Liquid Truth” shows how Rubens’ life is quickly destroyed. This engrossing drama uses the pool as a crucible for the attitudes of parents who rush to judgment and Rubens’ colleagues who worry about their reputations. De Oliveria makes Rubens a noble hero to root for as he refuses to acknowledge the small-minded people who fail to trust him and act on fear, not proof. A scene of Rubens holding his head high even when he is publicly branded a pedophile is effective. As the film builds to its quietly powerful climax, there is both clarity and ambiguity — which should prompt viewers to consider the film’s moral and ethical points long after Rubens gets out of the pool. (Queer quotient: 5/10).
“Swimming with Men” (on demand) is also about swimmers finding self-worth. This feel-good 2018 British comedy is a remake of the 2018 French film “Sink or Swim;” both are based on the true story of a Swedish team from 2010. Eric (Rob Brydon) is a middle-aged accountant in a stagnant marriage. His life has become routine, but when he unexpectedly gets involved with a men’s synchronized swimming team at his local pool, Eric finds meaning in life by working on synchronized swimming routines. He also finds a sense of belonging with his new friends, including the divorced Luke (Rupert Graves from “Maurice”), the widowed Ted (Jim Carter of “Downton Abbey”), and the gay Kurt (Adeel Akhtar). While several folks, from local policemen think a men’s synchronized swimming team is “gay,” and Eric’s own son, Billy (Spike White) thinks that his dad is gay, Eric comes to appreciate life and the homoerotic kinship he has with other men wearing shorts doing patterns in a pool. Culminating with a World Championship competition in Milan, “Swimming with Men” is an affable comedy in which the pool proves therapeutic. (Queer quotient: 1/8 men, but 4/10).
“Floating Skyscrapers” (AppleTV, Amazon) is notable for being one of the few gay films from Poland, and arguably of the first to focus on a gay relationship. Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk), a competitive swimmer, seems more comfortable in the water than on land. However, he has been training for 15 years for a championship and is really starting to feel pressure to perform. When Kuba meets Michal (Bartosz Gelner), he stops floating and falls hard. The attraction and intimacy of these two guys is magnetic, and while it takes time for them to truly give into their passions, the sexual tension between them percolates — especially when they are in the water, either naked at night during a camping trip, or teasing each other in a pool. Alas, Kuba’s girlfriend, Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz), is palpably jealous, and is not willing to give Kuba up. Writer/director Tomasz Wasilewski has created a sensitive romantic drama that may not traverse new territory, but it depicts the very strong (and very real) homophobia in Poland. Both Kuba and Michal’s parents bristle at their sons’ sexuality, and both young men encounter bullies with different results. “Floating Skyscrapers” boasts artfully-composed shots and gorgeous cinematography — the scenes in the pool are crystal clear — as well as a fantastic performance from Banasiuk, who dives deep to convey Kuba’s self-destructiveness and his gay desires. (Queer quotient: 7/10).
“Amphetamine” (Prime Video) is writer/director Scud’s intense, sensorial, and homoerotic drama about Kafka (Byron Pang), a sexy and straight swimming instructor, who meets Daniel (Thomas Price), a gay banker in Hong Kong. The two men slowly develop a romantic relationship, which builds as they swim together, share a hot tub, and even go to the beach. (They also go bungee jumping, diving off a bridge in one striking sequence). But Kafka, who has been coping with a past trauma and presently struggling with addiction, is reluctant to commit to Daniel. “Amphetamine” uses water — from Kafka flooding Daniel’s apartment to a lovely water ballet — as a way of conveying the unspoken emotions of the characters who are consumed by a fateful love. A scene of the guys scoping each other out in the pool’s showers is as erotic as a later scene of Kafka and Daniel embracing under a showerhead. Scud insists on filming his actors fully nude, and Pang — who gives a strong performance as a man haunted by his past and uncertain of his future — and Price both look good sans clothes in and out of the water. (Queer quotient: 9/10.)