‘The Optimists’ (‘Optimistene’): Film Review

Courtesy of Skofteland Film
As sprightly and unpretentious as its subjects

A Norwegian documentary profiles a volleyball-playing group of young-at-heart retired women

Not to be confused with a Serbian black comedy of the same name, The Optimists is a sunny (by Norwegian standards) documentary portrait of an amateur women’s volleyball team. The youngest athlete is 66, the eldest 98, and it’s been decades since they’ve actually competed, instead enjoying weekly intramural games amongst themselves in Hamar, Norway. Gunhild Westhagen Magnor’s charming film tracks their progress as they take the big leap, setting up a match against a men’s team in Sweden. Two years after debuting on home turf, the engaging feature took its West Coast bow at the Scandinavian Film Festival L.A.

As cinematographer and director, Magnor clearly established a strong level of trust with her subjects, who are variously playful, thoughtful and forthright before her camera. Some are accomplished athletes, others drawn to the group as a way of keeping active and social. The latter applies especially to Goro, the team’s senior member. A busy craftswoman with no background in organized sports, she cheerfully cops to being the worst player. When her younger teammates determine to take on another team, Goro’s initial response is “Oh dear.”

Goro’s ongoing struggle to master her volleyball serve culminates in a touching surprise, one that Magnor presents with deep feeling but no feel-good pandering. Throughout the doc, she resists the “ain’t they something” brand of condescension that colors many film depictions of older people. Striking views of the women cross-country skiing for exercise speak volumes about their determination and grace.

For all its spunk and humor, The Optimists is an illuminating look at the way the elderly live, at least at least in a Nordic social democracy with universal health care. The women are all financially comfortable, some wealthier than others. When seeking sponsorship funds for their trip to Sweden for the big match, one woman winkingly notes that she pulled an unused cloth coat from the back of her closet for the mission: “You don’t ask a bank for money in a mink coat.”

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Over post-practice lunch, the women engage in matter-of-fact, mildly irreverent discussions about whether they plan to age in place or move to smaller quarters. With her husband, 88-year-old Lillemor, a cofounder of the volleyball club, faces the trauma of downsizing from the house they’ve shared for half a century, the pang of emotion breaking through her quiet stoicism.

As to the main event, the film finds droll comedy in the lead-up to the showdown. After the Swedish Volleyball Association puts the women in contact with a slightly younger men’s team (ages 60 to 90), Magnor captures each group’s admiring gander at a picture of their opponents. The Norwegians get busy researching the game’s proper rules online, acquainting themselves with the dimensions of a regulation court and enlisting the advice of professional trainers, who are understandably amused and impressed by their style of play.

By the time the women take the court in Sollentuna, near Stockholm, with the numbers on their matching T-shirts reflecting their ages, the audience is fully in their corner. The well-edited contest is involving, but neither the players nor Magnor overstate the stakes. The larky score by Stefan Nilsson is in tune with the light approach, as is the joyful and unexpected blast of courtside mariachi horns.

Production companies: Skofteland Film, Mantaray Film
Director-screenwriter: Gunhild Westhagen Magnor
Producers: Hilde Skofteland, Ingunn Knudsen
Director of photography: Gunhild Westhagen Magnor
Editor: Robert V. Stengard
Composer: Stefan Nilsson  

No rating, 91 minutes