Film / Reviews

‘#Handball Strive’: The team may be fake, but the film is a winner

by Mark Schilling

Contributing writer

Japanese movies with a zero-to-hero story arc are many, with the template being “Water Boys,” Shinobu Yaguchi’s 2001 comedy about teenage boys who start a synchronized swimming team.

Similarly, Daigo Matsui’s“#Handball Strive” features a high school boys’ handball team, but the team is nothing more than a social media stunt aimed at garnering as many “likes” as possible — no athletic skill or effort required.

The film is not just a raucous satire on the falsity of the online world, though. A handball team of girls from the same high school is practicing hard to play in a national tournament and stands in sharp, sweaty contrast to the layabout boys.

#Handball Strive (#Hando Zenryoku)
Rating
Run Time 108 min
Language Japanese
Opens July 31

But Matsui, who has been making films about teenagers since his 2013 comedy “Daily Lives of High School Boys,” focuses squarely, if emphatically, on the fakers. Some, we see, have bigger problems than boosting their social media following. For the kid who starts it all, the faking comes from a darker place than the typical adolescent desire to show off.

He is Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is living in temporary housing with his parents three years after devastating earthquakes struck his hometown of Kumamoto, a real-life disaster that killed at least 50 and forced thousands to evacuate in April 2016.

One day, Masao is messing around with his pal Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) when a brief encounter with a girl on the handball team inspires him to reminisce about happier days with his now-absent friend Taichi (Shouma Kai). He digs out a photo of his younger self striking a dramatic handball pose, posts it on social media and it starts trending.

Masao and Okamoto are soon uploading a series of staged handball photos with the hashtag #HandballStrive. They recruit other boys to their hoax and soon their “team” is an internet sensation.

There is just one problem: They know next to nothing about handball, but have to play an actual game to keep their small army of followers happy. Masao tells the others they don’t need to practice. “We’re not good enough to try,” he says. Naturally, they are trounced by a real team, but that is only the beginning of their woes.

Matsui, who co-wrote the script, gets laughs from the goofball antics of Masao and his #Handball Strive co-conspirators. Unlike the many teens in Japanese films who look and act older than their years (and are played by actors in their 20s), they behave badly like real high school boys — that is, with a maturity level of about age 10.

And the film makes us understand Masao’s defeatism: After a catastrophe that destroyed his old life, he fears and dislikes whatever he can’t control, including handball games. Better the fictional heroics of his #Handball Strive team.

Masao’s conscience begins to trouble him, however, especially after he accidentally injures Nanao (Haruka Imou), a star on the girls’ team who supports him. “You’re just running away,” a straight-talking girl on the handball team tells him — and he knows she’s right.

The film, though, is about more than Masao having a change of heart. It’s also about kids discovering, sometimes painfully, the things that really matter. One is self-respect. Another is the joy of slamming a real ball into a real net in a real game. Regardless of the final score, “#Handball Strive” is a feel-good winner.

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