The Shiny Shrimps ★★★★

A film about a group of disparate men coming together through the medium of water sports, The Shiny Shrimps is everything last year’s Swimming With Men wasn’t. A huge hit in its native France, the story is ripped from co-director Cédric Le Gallo’s experiences playing for a gay water-polo team actually called The Shiny Shrimps — “shrimps” because they are water-based, “shiny” because they are fabulous — but transforms the reality into gleeful, fizzy, big-hearted fun.

The set-up is economically sketched. Swimmer Matthias Le Goff (Gob) uses a gay slur on TV and, as public penance for his sins, is forced by the sport’s governing body to coach a largely useless gay water-polo team named The Shiny Shrimps, who have no interest in winning (which is anathema to Le Goff) and every interest in having fun. Happily, the screenplay mostly avoids clichéd gay stereotypes to create a diverse bunch of men at different life stages with different obstacles to overcome; from team leader Jean (Alban Lenoir), who is guarding a secret, to Cédric (Michaël Abiteboul), who is married with kids but feigns working away to play with the Shrimps; from Joël (Roland Menou), the oldest in the group and from a different more radical generation, to Vincent (Martinez), a young newcomer from the country still trying to find his place in the world. Only Fred (Romain Brau), a Gaultier-clad transsexual woman, falls into caricature with a running joke about initiating group choreography.

Once the film has set its stall out, The Shiny Shrimps takes the form of a road movie as the team ride a double-decker bus — very The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert — to the Gay Games in Croatia. En route, there are comedic pranks (the gang get their clothes stolen while naked skinny-dipping), top-deck sing-songs (an acoustic take on Sabrina’s ’80s club classic ‘Boys (Summertime Love)’), unusual training methods (an impromptu game of dodgeball) and a more serious turn of events (a brutal assault in a lavatory). But Le Gallo and Govare’s handling of tone is masterful, seamlessly shifting from broad comedy to intimate moments of drama without ever grinding the gears.

There are some surprises along the way, but mostly The Shiny Shrimps sticks to the band-of-outsiders-come-good playbook. Le Goff’s obvious arc from bigotry to tolerance is a well-travelled one in cinema but Gob makes it work, grounding the film with reserve and sincerity. It’s hard to think of a ‘sports film’ that cares so little about the sport it portrays, but by the time you get to the Gay Games, Le Gallo and Govare have bigger fish to fry — the film’s ending guarantees there will be waterworks of a different kind.

The Shiny Shrimps is a warm, inclusive hug of a movie. The filmmaking is prosaic but wins you over with infectious exuberance and huge heart.