Lara Stolman's Swim Team is long enough to break and warm your heart in equal measure — which is about what you'd expect from a documentary about teenagers with autism who are training to compete in the Special Olympics. To its enormous credit, Swim Team is a very specific film that doesn't engage with the often acrimonious and ill-informed debates about what causes autism. Nor does Stolman line up experts to enlighten us on the subject of a condition about which so little is known for certain. By keeping a tight focus on three very different teenaged boys on the spectrum and their families, her film handily dispatches widely-held assumptions about autism, among them that every kid on the spectrum is a genius; that they're all obsessed with patterns or systems; that no one with autism likes to be touched; that they can't process emotion and prefer to be alone. Like you and me and everyone we know, they're all different, and the film honors that beautifully.
What Mikey, Robbie and Kelvin have in common is that they're all members of the Jersey Hammerheads, a parent-led team of swimmers in Perth Amboy, a town in the state of New Jersey, which has the highest rates of autism — a staggering 1 in 26 boys — in the United States. Mikey, the son of the team's founding coach and his wife, is high-functioning ("I'm autistic but I feel normal"), loves animals and wants to swim faster than Michael Phelps. We sit in as a patient young mother tries to explain to her sweet, friendly, handsome son Robbie why he's different from other kids. (He doesn't want to know.) And, bearing in mind the challenges of parenting any teenager, you can imagine what it's like to get Kelvin, who has multiple disorders including Tourette's Syndrome, to rein in the reflexive cursing that alienates even his teammates.
Swim Team has its triumphalist side, as such films must: The teamwork provides boys who otherwise have no friends with companionship and other life skills they're going to need as they enter adulthood. The movie's real power, though, lies in its sympathetic portrait of multi-ethnic, mostly low-income families trying to advocate for their sons at schools ill-equipped for special-needs kids even as they struggle with the labyrinth of woefully spotty social services. Unable to take their boys into many public places, many parents become isolated themselves. For them too, then, the swim team has become a haven of understanding and community.
One wants to bottle every one of these patient, loving mensches and pin a medal of honor on every one of them. Still, it's jarring that other than a tear shed here, a sigh of frustration there, the parents present as something approaching saints. It's a weakness of Swim Team, and perhaps of documentary — even verite documentary — that when a camera is running, people will strive to present their best selves. Given the enormous obstacles faced by these families on a daily basis, their best selves can only be part of the picture. Perhaps only a skillfully imagined fiction like television's excellent Parenthood can represent the messy totality of how people cope with the enormous frustrations of raising a child with autism.