Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2010's Men Who Swim directed by Dylan Williams
Elkin: So, how's that mid-life crisis going, Sacks? Have you bought the red sports car? Have you decided to open up the vegan cocktail bar you've always dreamed about? Have you started hanging out in malls?
What is it about us men in our forties? Why do we become awash in the realization, suddenly, that the lives we are living are not the ones we expected – and, even more importantly, why does that MATTER so much? Perhaps there are those of us who lay awake at night tracing through our decisions trying to find the un-event that took us down the path away from our dreams. Perhaps there are those of us who, upon finding this moment, try to hit the reset button in hopes of starting anew. Perhaps there are those of us who, by trying to hit that reset, come to understand that the lives we have ended up with are actually where we are meant to be.
Dylan Williams is one of those men, and his film, Men Who Swim, documents that journey of discovery.
When Dylan Williams moved from Wales to Stockholm for love, his Swedish language teacher told him that the key to Swedish society was to join a club. As Williams finds himself pushing forty and settled down with a wife and two kids while working at a job that he feels is squandering his potential, on top of feeling like a true fish out of water, those words resonate even stronger for him.
The documentary Men Who Swim is about Williams' embracing his language teacher's advice. He joins a club called the Stockholm Art Swim Gents, a group of middle age men who want to master the complex and challenging sport of Synchronized Swimming.
That's right. Men synchronized swimming. Swedish men.
Men Who Swim is a Coming-of-Middle-Age documentary, and I gotta tell you, Sacks, this film left a big old cheese grin on my face by its end. It is a story that I connected to because it is a story about connections and how, in those connections, we find ourselves.
And sometimes by finding ourselves, we find our place in the world. Even if that place is exactly where we thought we wanted to get away from in the first place. Even if that place is in a pool, with a bunch of other men in Speedos, performing synchronized dance moves.
Sacks: You said it well, Elkin. We're both men who are well into our 40s and are dealing with the deep existential emotional stress of that middle-aged crazy syndrome. I have to confess that the never-ending pressures of middle-age life are part of my motivation to write endlessly about comics and related media.
It's hard to explain the level of angst, inertia, frustration and simple ennui that comes upon you when you hit middle age until that age hits you. At some point in middle age you just become convinced that something in your life is just unsatisfying, a little empty and that the man that you have become and the life that you have somehow fallen into is just not as satisfying as you want it to be. Some of us handle that change in life with some level of grace and some of us just decide to chuck it all, move to a new country and get involved in men’s synchronized swimming.
I loved Dylan Williams's story and it left a giant silly grin on my face, too.
There are so many things that I loved about it, but I think more than anything I responded to the idea that Dylan and his synchro swim friends really could change and grow even in their 40s. The men were often lazy and bored and lacked commitment to their goofy little hobby. They had jobs and families and all kinds of commitments that held them back from spending the time that they needed to spend on this project. The movie is filmed with scene after scene of men looking at their calendars, trying to find dates when they can all come to the pool to practice ("I have meeting late on Tuesday. How's Wednesday for you?" "Wednesday I have ice hockey.").
But when the team hires a new professional trainer who is able to motivate the team and get them excited to compete in an international synchro swimming competition, the men come alive and do something amazing. They're able to create something transcendent and special. They can take their goofy hobby and turn it into something that's shocking and magical.
This is the sort of story that you would never believe in a fictional movie. I suppose the fictional version of Men Who Swim is something like Dodgeball or something, a cheesy silly Ben Stiller movie with a campy ending. But in this movie we see an average guy try something cheesy on a lark and has it turn into something surprisingly amazing.
Elkin, you've been through more than your share of middle-aged crazy, too. Did this movie make you want to suddenly take up a new hobby?
Elkin: Other than gourmet artisan sandwich crafting? No. And I have a feeling that I've only just begun to indulge my middle-age crazy as I have yet to try jello base-jumping or bungee-skydiving.
For me, Men Who Swim was a great reminder of the fact that oftentimes when we indulge our interests we discover that our lives are already pretty full. Williams discovers by the end of this documentary that as off-target as he thought his life had turned out, where he had actually landed was a pretty good place after all. Sometimes it's hard to see this as true in your own life, as stress and expectations and exhaustion and drudge seem to take up so much of your middle-age – but by changing your perspective, you might just find that those kids who are asking you to borrow the car and that lady who is asking you what you are making for dinner are pretty awesome people who add quite a bit of joy to your days.
It's also a film about the benefits of making real connections with others outside our tight circles of family and work. By expanding his base, Williams finds out that he becomes more of the person he actually is. And I think that may be one of those universal truths I'm always on about. I mean if I didn't take a chance thinking I had something to say about comics and documentaries, then I never would have met you and Silva and all the other super swell fellas of the Comics Bulletin Crowd. And I know I am the better man for having interacted with you all.
This film certainly promulgates the idea that you should let your freak flag fly, and, by doing so, you find other freaks who are flying theirs. Of course then you have to get a bunker, form and army, and the rest is history. Remember those guys who loved Rockafire Explosion or all the people circulating the Shut Up, Little Man tapes? There is a niche for everyone and in that niche you're bound to find friends. By finding those friends, you then help find yourself.
But the thing I liked the most about this film is that it knew when to montage and when to go linear. And while Williams certainly makes his own story the focus of much of the film, he never comes across as moralistic or pedagogic. It's heart-warming, revelatory, and a fine bit of business. As much of an oxymoron as it sounds, it's a feel-good film from Sweden – about middle-aged men in Speedos – synchronized swimming.
How awesome is that?
Sacks: Pretty awesome, I think, Elkin.
I really enjoyed watching men who are more or less my age feeling adrift, a bit confused, a tiny bit lost in their lives. It’s a very odd feeling to set up everything just perfectly in your life and then realize suddenly that everything you’ve achieved feels a little empty. It’s a unique feeling that many of us never really experience until we reach a certain age, get that dream job and dream car and lovely wife and happy children and money in the bank and suddenly realize that somehow having all those things that make you comfortable just isn’t enough.
Even as our lives get stronger and richer and more wonderful, so too do aspects of our lives feel unimportant and trivial.
Life will break your heart if you think about it too much, and ennui is an incredibly powerful force.
The difference between the men who swim in this movie and the guys who loved Rockafire Explosion is that the triumph of the men’s synchronized swimming team comes completely from those men. It’s a triumph and feels exciting because they win their competition as a result of their own hard work, of the men finding an inner strength from amidst their ennui that causes them to create something truly great.
That made this story inspiring in ways that most movies just can’t hit. In its depiction of real men achieving improbable greatness – and finding love, friendship, confidence and real joy along the way – Men Who Swim is one of the best movies about middle age crazy that I’ve ever seen.
Elkin: I can see the pull quote now: Men Who Swim – a cure for the Middle Age Crazy.
And hey, Sacks – sure “life will break your heart if you think about it too much,” but making real connections with good people like you? Well, that'll put it right back together again.
Now go wash that perfectly good and reliable car in your driveway. Maybe get it a tune up and some new tires. Enjoy yourself a martini in the comfort of your own living room and remember that people who drink vegan cocktails aren't really the people you want to hang out with anyway. After you do all that, go kiss the woman you love and tell your kids how awesome they are.
You're home, buddy. It's a pretty good place to be.