Russell Tovey doesn’t fumble his role as a closeted footballer in this British sports drama

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Image Credit: ‘The Pass,’ The Orchard

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this Super Bowl weekend edition of the column, we’re taking a cheeky look at the story of “footballers” from across the pond in 2016’s The Pass.

Historically, there hasn’t been a strong connection between team sports and the queer community. They tend to be culturally regarded as one of the epitomes of traditional masculinity, and it hasn’t been until quite recently that more players in national and international leagues have felt comfortable coming out. And even then, most of them have still faced professional consequences or heavy criticism for it. With equitable representation still very much lagging in sports, it’s no surprise there are very few sports movies with overtly queer themes, particularly from the last century.

This Sunday, thousands of people from all over the world will gather to watch the Superbowl game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. It’s painting out to be a pretty queer-less event, with the gayest things being the tangential Taylor Swift relation and the potential of Usher being shirtless during the Halftime Show.

This week, to counterbalance this sports programming with some queerness, we’ll be taking a look at a 2016 movie about a different kind of football, The Pass

The Set-Up

The Pass is a considerably more recent film than what we usually cover in this column, and one that deals with the decidedly more European and Latin American-centric sport of soccer, rather than American football. However, it’s one of the few films that overtly centers the emotional hardships that queer athletes face both publicly and in private.

The film follows the story of Jason (Russell Tovey) a professional soccer player for an unnamed European league who battles with his homosexual attraction and feelings for a fellow player, Ade (Arinze Kene), while trying to keep the rumors of his orientation secret from the public by leaking a story of an affair with a woman (Lisa McGrillis). 

The film is told in three main acts, each separated by five years as it tracks the rise of Jason’s career and popularity. Each of these acts is contained to a single room with just two or three characters interacting with one another. The first two segments follow Jason and Ade in a hotel room, first leaning into each other’s desires, and then dealing with the emotional baggage of that encounter a decade later. In the middle portion, after Jason has risen in the soccer ranks, has gotten married and had children, he’s trying to contain the rumors that he has built a fake life for himself by filming himself having an affair with a woman.

Not Quite The Weekend

Although the film means well and is ambitious with the themes it tries to tackle, it is also clearly limited by the size of its cast and its contained locations. This approach to character and setting has been used effectively in other queer films before, mainly Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, which The Pass borrows heavily from in form and structure. 

However, while emotional and physical intimacy was the point of the former film, a huge thematic through-line of The Pass is the public attention and persona that these players have built for themselves, and how embracing their sexual identity and desires could jeopardize that.

Intimate Scene Partners

Image Credit: ‘The Pass,’ The Orchard

The small moments between them work well in the contained setting, particularly the sexual tension building up and exploding in the opening stretches, and the confrontation in the last act. But we are left to imagine everything concerning their actual role as soccer superstars rather than see it portrayed, and while that is clearly a restriction of the budget and size of the film, it still feels lacking.

The exploration of queerness in sports remains mostly surface-level and there are no deep or revelatory insight here, but there are still moments that stand out. Russell Tovey gives a strong lead performance (he doesn’t get to have those often), effectively tracking Jason’s arc throughout the years—even if he feels more comfortable in the rougher, more emotionally guarded parts of the story. Arinze Kene and Lisa McGrillis also make great scene partners for him, matching Tovey’s energy and making the somewhat cliché dialogue believable. 

Three’s Company

The sex scenes and chemistry between the leads are also very well-accomplished, and it doesn’t hurt that Tovey and Kene are in top physical form and spend a good three quarters of the film shirtless or in their underwear. But one scene in particular embodies the homoerotic tension that is integral in team sports as well as the toxic masculinity that the environment ingrains in these players:

As Jason and Ade reunite a decade after their closest encounter, which drove Ade away from Jason’s life, they are hashing old regrets and desires when a young male hotel staffer (Nico Mirallegro) brings them their drinks. Jason invites him to stay when he realizes he’s a fan. And what follows is a series of power plays, mental games and sexual escalation—a mix between a fraternity hazing scene and the opening of a gay adult.

It’s perhaps the best scene of the film, with so much expressed nonverbally between the characters as they let their worst instincts take over them and a bystander is forced to receive the worst of it. It almost works best as a stand-alone segment or short film.

Going Into Overtime

Image Credit: ‘The Pass,’ The Orchard

However, there are also some painfully dated moments including a blackface sequence that, even though it’s meant to show Jason’s inconsideration and selfishness, is still quite hard to sit through. It’s this tonal and thematic inconsistency that stops the film from really making a mark.

It perhaps will still take some years for a nuanced, overtly queer sports movie to come along that authentically reflects the hardships and obstacles that out athletes have to face, either in modern times or throughout history. There are still many clichés and prejudices associated with both the genre and the real-life field. But as small steps forward are taken, films like The Pass remind us that, even though they are not perfect, there is a well of untold stories about these people that has yet to be fully explored.

The Pass is available to stream via Crackle, Dekkoo, Plex, PlutoTV, The Roku Channel, Tubi, & Vudu.

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