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New Jersey, it turns out, has the highest autism rate in the country, with one in 26 boys on the spectrum. Three of them are the engaging central characters in Swim Team, an eye-opening look at one couple’s response to the dearth of public services, therapies and programs for their son.
Lara Stolman’s thoughtful film follows the first season of the Special Olympics team that Maria and Mike McQuay formed, tracking the athletes’ triumphs and challenges both in and out of the pool. As autism diagnoses continue to rise, the doc’s personal portraits of the work required to forge an independent life should connect with and inspire parents and educators.
Doctors told the McQuays that Mike Jr. would never be self-sufficient, but he’s one of the stars of the Jersey Hammerheads of Perth Amboy, the coed (mostly male) squad that trains at the Raritan Bay YMCA. Under the compassionate but rigorous leadership of head coach Mike Sr., the team racks up medals as it progresses from local meets to sectional competitions, stateside summer games and, for one swimmer, the national Special Olympics.
Mikey and the two other Hammerheads who Stolman focuses on, Robert Justino and Kelvin Truong, are compelling screen figures who embody a wide range of symptoms. Toward the beginning of the documentary, the filmmaker uses succinct onscreen titles to provide helpful definitions and background info; having established that generalized base, though, her concern is always the individuality of her subjects, well captured in the fluent camerawork of Laela Kilbourn (American Teen).
With his charming earnestness, Robbie, who wants to design video games, proves a natural leader — not just of the Hammerheads but of his high school team as well. That some of his teachers see a Walmart storeroom job as his only hope is one of the bitter frustrations that Stolman exposes. Always sensitive to the kids and their parents, she doesn’t need to underline such points; the look in Robbie’s mother’s eyes says it all. For Kelvin, whose autism is compounded by Tourette syndrome, the difficulties are more obvious. His mother, the stress evident beneath her smile, points out the holes Kelvin has made in walls throughout their large suburban house. His father tells Stolman that medication has had no discernible impact, while swimming has reduced the young man’s tics.
Swim Team doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of dollar figures, but it makes clear that special-needs families can face financial burdens in addition to emotional stress. Delving into parental anxieties over kids’ job prospects, the film shows that public schools are not always forthcoming with crucial information about state-funded programs. Beyond high school graduation lie wait-lists for group homes and consultations with disability attorneys over the intricacies of legal guardianship.
The Hammerheads’ day-to-day dramas on the competition circuit may feel small in the scheme of things, but their wider impact registers within the context that Stolman has skillfully laid out. Every hopeful turn of events for Mikey, Robbie and Kelvin is significant not just for them but as an example of what’s possible for kids who might otherwise have been permanently sidelined.
Underwater footage of the Hammerheads eloquently expresses the calm, purpose and joy they find in the pool. Mikey McQuay puts it no less eloquently: “When I’m swimming,” he tells the filmmakers, “I feel normal.”
Venue: Napa Valley Film Festival
Production company: Woodland Park Productions
Director: Lara Stolman
Producers: Lara Stolman, Ann Collins, Shanna Belott
Director of photography: Laela Kilbourn
Editor: Ann Collins
Composer: Mark Suozzo
Not rated, 100 minutes
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