'The Shiny Shrimps' ('Les Crevettes pailletees'): Film Review

The Shiny Shrimps Still - Publicity - H 2019
Thibault Grabherr
Shine bright like a...shrimp?

Cedric Le Gallo and Maxime Govare co-directed this colorful sports comedy about a homophobic swim champion forced to train a gay waterpolo team.

A homophobic swimming champion is forced to coach an amateur gay water polo team in the queer comedy The Shiny Shrimps (Les crevettes pailletees), directed by Frenchmen Maxime Govare (Daddy Cool) and newcomer Cedric Le Gallo, who played for a gay water polo team actually called The Shiny Shrimps. 

Though the plot is fictional, the film benefits from Le Gallo's inside-track experience, with the depicted team mostly feeling like a band of actual human beings rather than a box-ticking collection of queer clichés. Though it doesn't feature any major stars and was dumped in theaters just before the onslaught of more prestigious Cannes titles in early May, Shiny Shrimps has clicked with French audiences hungry for something fizzy and light, with these scintillating crustaceans attracting over half a million viewers locally. The pic has already been sold to more than a dozen foreign territories, including Peccadillo Pictures in the U.K.

The story, it has to be said, is a largely predictable one, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it's something that unites most mainstream French comedy hits nowadays, including last year's box-office sensation Sink or Swim, also about men in pools, to which this film was inevitably compared in the local press.

Here, the handsome and fit Matthias Le Goff (Belgian actor Nicolas Gob) is a French swimming champion who works extremely hard for his continued success. But — in a very credible twist in this epoch of instant Twitter outrage — a homophobic tirade caught on camera suddenly puts his career prospects on hold. 

The national swimming federation decides that, in order to make public amends, Le Goff has to coach The Shiny Shrimps, a water polo team that are not only amateurs and gay but — and this is perhaps the worst "sin" of all — a team not necessarily interested in winning. What these shrimp really want is to have a good time and be amongst gay friends and away from the outside world full of homophobes like Matthias. A match made in odd couple-movie heaven, so to speak. Plus the men will half-heartedly — if thankfully not always limp-wristedly — train for the upcoming Gay Games in Croatia, so the audience can get its fair share of sports-movie cliches, as well. 

The team was founded by level-headed restaurant owner Jean (Alban Lenoir, in a rare comedy role), a man in his late thirties with a secret about how physically able he is to still be doing all of this. Alex (David Baiot) is Jean's ex, who remains part of the team even though he's the one who was dumped and is clearly hurting from the breakup. Their teammate Cedric (Michael Abiteboul) has an office job and is married with kids, which sometimes clashes with his desire to hang out with his water polo friends, some of whom really like to party until the early morning. The cranky-but-lovable Joel (Roland Menou) is the eldest of the group. His perspective on all matters gay is informed by the fact he was part of a more militant generation that especially the youngsters sometimes take for granted. 

Indeed, Joel is always somewhat disappointed and out of his element, especially when compared to younger recruits like Xavier (Geoffrey Couet), a flag-waving party boy who's unapologetically himself. Or Damien (Romain Lancry), who pretends to be as careless as Xavier but has issues in his family and past. Vincent (Felix Martinez) is the young newcomer from the sticks who works at Jean's restaurant and is still trying to figure everything out, but he takes to water polo and the gang of friends like a duck to water. 

The eighth member of the team is Fred (Romain Brau), the film's most problematic element. Fred is a transsexual woman, and the fact she is not a cisgender gay man on a team supposedly exclusive to cisgender gay men rubs especially the old-school Joel the wrong way (for about two seconds, anyway). The idea to explore transsexuality within an otherwise cisgender gay group is a very welcome one, as cisgender gay groups struggle with transsexual inclusion as well (just think of the whole AfterEllen/TERF debacle for a Stateside example). But Le Gallo and Govare never use Fred in any meaningful way, instead weirdly insisting on her trying to get the team to do a group choreography as a kind of lame running gag without any clear payoff (their little number doesn't even make a real appearance in Croatia). 

In a feature above all about tolerance — as Le Goff has to learn the hard way — this feels less like a missed opportunity than a disturbing misstep. Why include a transsexual character at all in a movie about open-mindedness and acceptance and then not use her specific position within the otherwise gay male ensemble to reflect on the film's main theme? It reduces Fred to a token character from a marginalized group, exactly the kind of thing the other team members are not. Indeed, the seven gay males on the team all feel surprisingly individual and real; there's a genuine spectrum of men from different backgrounds and with different personalities who all happen to be gay and love water sports. (No, not that kind.)

Most of the laughs are rather facile, from jokes with a gay twist — the explanation of why, exactly, they are called Shiny Shrimps is great — to sight gags and familiar situational humor. The latter first involves Le Goff's straight-fish-in-gay-water story before switching to internal issues in the group as their supposed fiend finally thaws (also thanks to an assist from his cute and clearly more evolved daughter).

Much like their somewhat bland visual approach, Le Gallo and Govare, who wrote the script with Romain Choay, rely mainly on the familiar mechanisms of mainstream comedies for their humor, which works fine if you expect to be entertained without necessarily being surprised. There are some nods to queer classics as well, notably their trip on a rented bus from Paris to Croatia, echoing the fabulous The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — a film that, incidentally, did manage to explain and celebrate the difference between drag queens and trans women. 

The acting is pitched to the relative loudness of the respective characters, so Lenoir, Menou and Baiot are somewhat subdued while Couet, Abiteboul and, after some warmup, Lancry, get to be boisterous and flamboyant. What keeps the whole thing from flying off the rails is the directors' command of tone and the sincerity of Gob's performance; his transformation from homophobe to shiny shrimp gives the ensemble a reality check early on while also showing that an evolution toward acceptance is entirely possible (that was a spoiler if you've never seen a movie before — apologies). A third-act tragedy, foreshadowed without histrionics, even manages to bring a tear to the viewer's eyes before things end on a literal high note. 

Production companies: Les Improductibles, Kaly Productions, Charades
Cast: Nicolas Gob, Alban Lenoir, Michael Abiteboul, David Baiot, Romain Lancry, Roland Menou, Geoffrey Couet, Romain Brau, Felix Martinez
Directors: Cedric Le Gallo, Maxime Govare
Screenwriters: Cedric Le Gallo, Maxime Govare, Romain Choay
Producers: Renaud Chelelekian, Edouard Duprey 
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Nicolas Migot
Editor: Samuel Danesi
Music: Thomas Couzinier, Frederic Kooshmanian
Casting: Coralie Amedeo, Dorothee Auboiron
Venue: Utopia Luxembourg 
Sales: Charades

In French, English
100 minutes