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‘Pete Can’t Play Basketball’ but his comedy short film is a winner

Filmmaker Nick Borenstein provides a fresh and likable take on the ‘gays in sports’ comedy archetype.

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It wasn’t that long ago that if you heard there was a new comedy film about a gay character’s inability to play sports, there was a near 100% certainty he’d be written and played as a painful stereotype we’ve all seen way too many times.

Said character would be automatically disinterested in sports and his huge laugh moment would come from whiffing on a catchable ball in the big game because he was too busy reenacting Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” video.

Which is why Nick Borenstein’s new short, “Pete Can’t Play Basketball,” which debuted on Tuesday on Vimeo, is both charmingly funny and refreshing to watch — particularly as it depicts a gay character’s attempts to play sports.

Don’t misunderstand. The film’s title is 100% accurate. Pete, as played by Borenstein, genuinely can’t play basketball. Which makes his co-workers’ obsession with their office hoops league a bit of a nightmare.

But he’s not the “Oh, he’s gay... so of course he doesn’t bother with sports” character type. As the short makes clear, for one brief shining moment as a kid, Pete could hoop it up. And basketball continues to play a role at various points in his life — he doesn’t automatically dismiss it, just because he’s gay.

Instead, the reason Pete can’t play basketball is simple. He’s got no skills.

In an email conversation with Outsports, Borenstein reflected on why he chose the game as the subject for his new short:

“I used sports as a metaphor and wanted to illustrate Pete as a person who never felt accepted by society. Where basketball skills are the important social value in the world of ‘Pete,’ our society creates a similar system of value judgements. I wanted to highlight how ridiculous those judgements can feel. We can be terrible or wonderful at sports but ultimately, those values and traits are not the basis of our worth.”

Which is pretty heady stuff for a comedy short about a workplace league. But it works well because that theme and Pete himself are so relatable (And speaking as someone whose therapist now knows way too many details about my Little League career, let me just add: it me).

Comedian and actress Katina Corrao, who plays one of Pete’s basketball obsessed co-workers, also picked up on the film’s universality. “I saw Pete as just incredibly lovable, someone you root for, someone with a passion for something who struggled to excel,” she told Outsports. “In a weird way, he was almost a representation of ourselves, mirroring the feelings we all feel inside when we struggle to reach that one thing we wish we could.”

In addition to its empathetic strengths, the film also works because it’s just plain funny. In under eight minutes of running time, Borenstein creates a number of really good comedy moments by economizing his writing and editing, which he credits to being influenced by filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Nick Borenstein at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.
Instagram: @nborenstein

The frequency of his cuts trims the dialogue down to only what’s necessary, giving the short a pace that feels like the laugh lines hit with regularity. Their frequency also helps build and sustain a strong comic momentum.

In turn, this generates more sympathy for the character. As Borenstein noted, “I wanted Pete to have an intimate relationship with the audience — addressing them, laughing with them, and showing the real Pete.”

The real Borenstein, meanwhile, is remarkably similar on court to the on-camera character. He minced no words in his assessment of his game: “Let’s make no mistake. I am terrible at basketball. I was terrified to make a basket on camera so the joy you see from Pete when he makes the basket is method acting.”

Fortunately, that only serves to make the film stronger. You can currently watch it for yourself on Vimeo.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that “Pete Can’t Play Basketball” had been named a Vimeo Pick of the Week, but that hasn’t happened. Outsports regrets the error.