Every single interview Lara Stolman conducted for her first feature-length documentary seemed to go the same way. Each time they addressed the camera, the parents of the teenagers in “Swim Team” would break down and cry.
“I can’t have everyone crying,” Stolman recalls thinking. “It’s going to put the audience off. No one is going to be able to feel anything for anybody!”
In truth, she knew there was no way that was going to happen. “Swim Team” tells the rousing, sometimes gut-wrenching story of a group of young people who have joined a competitive team for children with disabilities — in this case, autism spectrum disorders. The film, which screened earlier this year as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston, will show several times through Oct. 19 (beginning Sunday) at the Museum of Fine Arts. An abbreviated version also airs Monday at 10 p.m. on PBS.
The film tells the parallel stories of Mikey, Robbie, and Kelvin, all of them school-age young men on the autism spectrum, and the Hammerheads, the swim team organized by Mikey’s parents, Mike and Maria McQuay of Middlesex County, N.J. Mikey has a flat, affectless tone; Robbie has a cognitive delay; Kelvin struggles with debilitating verbal and physical tics on top of his own autistic traits. All three, as it happens, are superb swimmers.
Stolman, a veteran producer of long-form television news stories for NBC, AMC, The New York Times’s website, and others, had been eager to make her own documentary for some time.
“I’ve always done what I was assigned to do,” she says by phone from her home in New Jersey. “As a creative person, I was always asking, ‘What’s my story to tell?’ I didn’t have one, really, until I had a son with autism.”
At a young age Stolman’s second of three sons, who is now 11, often wandered away from the family. Living in a neighborhood full of swimming pools, Stolman was determined that her son should learn how to swim. That’s how she first heard about the McQuays and the Hammerheads.
“It was the right time to be meeting them,” she says. “Mike kept saying his team was going to dominate the competition. That kind of blew me away. Part of me was thinking, yeah, right. But he was oozing with inspiration. I knew from the moment I met him — this guy belongs in a film himself.”
Though Stolman’s team of filmmakers followed the Hammerheads as they prepared to compete in local and then statewide meets, she says it took some time for her to realize her project would become a classic sports saga of triumph over adversity. (Her own son is not in the film; he ended up not joining the team.)
“I always thought it was about parenting, and autism, obviously. Sports was just a narrative device — it could have been a marching band, for example.” But when early viewers told her they appreciated the boys’ will to win, she realized the story “had the ability to transcend the autism community. It’s a human story, one that works on a bigger level.”
The film has plenty going for it, from the strength of its character development to the beauty of its balletic underwater footage. If there’s one concern she’s heard more than any other from festival audiences, Stolman says, it’s that some parents feel they don’t see their own autistic kids’ stories in the lives of the boys she focused on.
With 17 kids on the team, Stolman and co-producer/editor Ann Collins inevitably had to showcase a few of the swimmers at the expense of others.
“That’s one of my dilemmas,” the director says. “There’s a tremendous amount of diversity in the way autism presents itself.” The team had kids who were likely on the Asperger end of the spectrum, kids who were nonverbal, kids who exhibited “self-stimulating” behaviors, like flapping their hands.
“I wanted to show all that,” Stolman says. “It’s really hard to do all that and have story arcs that fit together.”
She quotes the well-traveled line about the disorder: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
“One person can’t represent the spectrum, obviously,” she says. “That’s part of our story — we are all so diverse. This is not supposed to be the definitive version of autism. I don’t claim that at all.”
Carter Long, film and video curator at the MFA, says he was eager to program the film (in a partnership with the Boston ReelAbilities Film Festival) for the simple reason that he thinks it’s extraordinary.
“There are a lot of people who understand autism through the headlines,” he says. “This is an opportunity to see the human beings, the families, the people these kids rely on for support. The film is populated by amazing people. That’s the pleasure of watching it, to me. You see humanity, in a lot of ways, at its very best.”
The film’s distributor, Argot Pictures, made sure to book theatrical screenings in New York and Los Angeles earlier this year in order to be eligible for Oscars consideration. Stolman says that, with more than 100 other documentaries vying for nominations, she’s trying to be realistic about the film’s chances.
“The reason you go through it is that it might bring some more attention to the film, which is really all I wanted,” she says.
Still, she’ll hold out a little hope for a nomination.
“Well, who wouldn’t?” she says with a laugh. Like the boys in the pool, you take your success where you find it.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.