Swimsuit Issue, The: Male Synchronized Swimming

By Jeff Farr

Male synchronized swimming? It is an idea whose time has come, according to Måns Herngren’s new comedy “The Swimsuit Issue,” which recently was at the Tribeca Film Festival. Actually, as the film reveals, synchronized swimming started as a sport for men. In “The Swimsuit Issue,” some endearing middle-aged Swedes — most of them one step away from permanent loserdom — try to reclaim synchro as their own and to redeem their dearly departed self-esteem in the process.

The leader of the gang is Fredrik (Jonas Inde), whose life is in tatters. Out of work, still recovering emotionally from a long-failed marriage, Fredrik’s obsession with competitive sport — especially his favorite, floor ball — seems unhealthy to say the least. Here again is the sportsman over the hill and unhinged.
When Fredrik and his fellow floor ballers make a silly but warmly received video for a wedding party — in which they appear in drag doing a synchro routine in the community pool — wheels start turning in his desperate mind. Maybe he and his buddies can make something of their newfound “talent,” floor ball looking more and more like a dead end.
Fredrik is suddenly a man on a mission, cajoling the guys into a performance at a pride festival and a trip to Berlin to compete for the world championship, representing Sweden as proudly as they can. But before they can hit the road for Berlin, all piling into a team camper, there are plenty of obstacles to surmount, including finding a new pool to rehearse in, as they have been banned from their recreation center. They also need to find an experienced coach who can pound their raw talent into a solid routine that will win Sweden the gold.
Meanwhile, Fredrik is dealing with deep tensions with his teenager daughter, Sara (Amanda Davin). His ex-wife has decamped to London and is paying him to let Sara stay with him in his apartment — an arrangement unbeknownst to wiser-than-her-years Sara. Conveniently, she is a synchronized swimmer herself and, predictably enough, a prime candidate to become the crew’s coach.
“The Swimsuit Issue” may have lifted much of its template from the hit “The Full Monty” (1997), but it is its own film — a much better one in many ways. Although it does follow a path we have been down many times before, Herngren deserves much credit for never flinching from the real despair and confusion that Fredrik and company are facing as they reach their middle years and see their prospects drying up in all directions. This adds a welcome bite to much of the humor in “The Swimsuit Issue.”
The film certainly resonates with the current economic downturn that has spread from the United States to Europe and the world. “The Swimsuit Issue” ends on an up note but offers no easy answers about how people can feel successful when there just are not any avenues to success left.
The screenplay, by Herngren, Jane Magnusson, and Brian Cordray takes a couple of surprise turns near the end and pays fine attention to detail throughout. For instance, when Fredrik first tries to convince his mates to seriously dive into synchro, he also tries to sell them on the goofy idea that their water formations can be based on the diagrams of compounds for popular illicit drugs. When Fredrick redoes Sara’s new room to make her feel more at home, he paints little bubbles on her walls. When the men finally do find a new practice pool, they must share it with snorkelers, who are simultaneously having their own practice time down below. Unique details like these add up as the film progresses, making what could have felt overly familiar seem relatively fresh.
“The Swimsuit Issue” is also full of winning performances, starting with Inde and Davin, whose relationship is the film’s emotional core. Davin gets it just right: a teenage girl who is on the one hand slightly annoying, a typical teenager, but on the other hand well on her way to becoming a strong woman who can stand up for herself.
All the supporting roles are pitch perfect, especially turns by Peter Gardiner, as the only black member of the team, who has the hardest time with the perceived gayness of the men’s new endeavor, and Andreas Rothlin-Svensson, as Fredrik’s best friend, who lags behind the others in terms of syncro ability but whom Fredrik depends on more than anyone else.
Cinematographer Henrik Stenberg gives the film a clean, muted look: lots of blues and greys. This works well with the darker themes Herngren wants to touch on. The film never looks dour but seems to be always on the verge of going there.
When the men get to perform, Stenberg captures the strange beauty of their dance in the water. It is not just that these are men doing synchro — these are mature men of many shapes and sizes trying to fit their bodies together into the semblance of something musical and artful. They look funny and wonderful at the same time: poetry in motion.
“The Swimsuit Issue” deserves to find a large audience, but this may prove difficult in the current U.S. market. Herngren’s film is not quite cartoonish enough to fit in with most of our summer comedies. But therein lies its strength. Viewers who give it a chance are sure to be rewarded with an accomplished character-driven comedy for our times, in which the laughs may be slow coming but are all the more satisfying when they do.