The coming-out tale Summer Storm is set at a rowing camp, where teams of boys and girls from around Germany train for a regatta. One of the crews, made up of gay boys from Berlin, is called the "Queerstrokes," and that's about par for the course in terms of subtlety here. True, they use the English word "queer" and not its German equivalent, so the name must work better in German, where it isn't so obvious. On the other hand, as one of the team members says, why couldn't they be the Champions or the Destroyers?
It's wise of Summer Storm to ask that question. In fact, the movie is clearly invested in dismantling gay stereotypes, since it populates the gay team with all manner of boy: cocky gym bunny, sweet poet, random bland guy, foppy queen. And Tobi (Robert Stadlober), the film's tortured protagonist, is a real boy with no external "gay" signifiers, unless you count his ill-fitting rugby shirt, which is probably more "Germany" than "gay." All of which is to say, Summer Storm is a mixed bag. It has plenty to offer by way of serious, sensitive handling of gay teen issues, and it's often an accomplished drama, with fine acting and direction. On the other hand, it has some oddities -- i.e., a rogue campy streak -- and some problems, such as unwelcome melodrama and a protagonist who's hard to like.
Tobi is an accomplished young oarsman whose team depends on him for motivation and leadership. Over the years, he's formed a very close bond with Achim (the lovely Kostja Ullmann), his best friend. In fact, Tobi flirts desperately with Achim -- and gets away with most of it, since even engaging in parallel jerk-offs falls under the rubric of teen-boy play. (One of the myriad reasons that it's so confusing for teenagers to be gay is that adolescent same-sex relationships tend to be fluid in the amount of flirtation they allow.) But as the boys head to summer rowing camp, Achim's relationship with his girlfriend is heating up, and he begins to lose patience with Tobi's cloying affections.
At camp, the boys encounter the Queerstrokes, whose presence sends a twitter of discomfort through Tobi's cohort. Schorsi, the boy whose father funds the team, is cripplingly homophobic, and most of the others are unsettled, unsure of how to meet such an open and unapologetic display of gay sexuality. Relations are tentative until Malte (Hanno Koffler), the gym bunny, makes a game of seducing Schorsi by pretending to be a straight infiltrator of the gay team. "I'm writing a paper on sexual disorientation," he tells Schorsi, "and they don't know." ("Sexual disorientation" must be a mistranslation for "confusion" or "perversion," but it's a great one.)
As the days progress, the pressure on Tobi mounts. From one direction, he's pressed by Anke (Alicja Bachleda-Curu), his girlfriend, who keenly feels a chill. From the other, he faces the Queerstrokes, and the quiet poet, toward whom he feels drawn. And then there's Achim, whose frustration seems headed for the breaking point. The tension builds with the force of -- yep -- a summer storm.
Formally known as the pathetic fallacy (i.e., when the weather mirrors a character's emotions), that storm is one of the film's mistakes. In fact, almost everything that happens after a major plot point involving Tobi and the Queerstrokes feels very, very meaningful, as though director Marco Kreuzpaintner can't quite trust us with the material. The result is a decrease, not an increase, in power, since our emotional connection with the action is usurped. On the other hand, that emotional connection was already challenged, by Tobi -- as in, it's a bit of a chore to like him.
True, a boy struggling with homosexuality is likely to act in ways that are distancing. Tobi's wicked crush on Achim is a source of great pain, as is Tobi's increasing suspicion that he might be gay, especially when faced with the derision of some of his teammates. So Stadlober's portrayal of a self-obsessed brooder is undeniably realistic. Still, a spot or two of warmth would help. Tobi is either plangent (with Achim) or icy (with everyone else); he's almost never truly vulnerable or exposed. As a result, he comes off as a baby and a jerk. At times, you'll root for anyone -- everyone -- but him.
Still, Summer Storm has some great moments, as when Tobi's girlfriend confronts him about his behavior, and the film is good at portraying what is a very fraught process for many teens. In fact, it's an act of compassion that Tobi's process is so messy and unpredictable; the film allows him to misbehave, which is a permission we all deserve. In Germany, where coming-out films are not nearly so run-of-the-mill as they have become in America, Summer Storm has apparently already done some good.
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