Movie Review: Soccer drama “Mario” is built around Love in the Locker Room

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Ambition and dreams of soccer (football) glory crash into hormones and love in “Mario,” a brittle gay romance from Switzerland.

That’s where Mario Lüthi is an up-and-coming striker, playing for an Under 21 in a developmental league. He’s a striker that the big clubs have their eye on.

But as the YB club would love to jump to the upper division next year, they’ve brought in a hot talent from Hanover. Leon Saldo is also a striker, a bit of a ball hog. But the boys can make beautiful music together, the team realizes. So they make them roommates as well as teammates.

Then a hot night, video games in their underwear, horseplay. A smooch and an apology, and then No apologies NECESSARY, and the two young men — one tentative and inexperienced, the other Grindr-savvy — fall hard.

Can they play together and sleep together? Can they keep a secret, because as progressive and “politically correct” as the club wants to be, their teammates are teenage boys, after all — cruel by default.

“What a gay shot!” (in German, with English subtitles) is the go-to put-down when the ball doesn’t come your way. We know what’s coming if they find out.

Swiss director Marcel Gisler specializes in portrayals of gay life (the documentary “Electroboy” was his, and the feature “A Man, his Lover and His Mother”). Here, he patiently –almost too patiently — develops the footballers’ milieu — training routines, the dynamic of multi-cultural team, their music and group social life, as well as giving us a taste of Mario’s family.

Max Hubacher gives us a Mario who has had soccer drilled into him since he was very young by his frustrated baller dad (Jürg Plüss). Mario hasn’t been in charge of his own life, ever. Soccer is all he has — soccer and his BFF Jenny (Jessy Moravec)

Leon, played with a smoldering swagger by Aaron Altaras, is a shock to Mario’s system. As they connect as a couple, they have to fret over public displays of affection as they hire agents and plan for their football future. They’re young, but they have to know that coming out as a couple will blow up everything they’ve been working for their whole lives.

I like the fact that they’re portrayed as equals, none of this experience meets naive youth of “Personal Best,” still the most famous film on this subject.’

The film is sober and humorless to a fault. Knowing looks pass back and forth when Mario’s Dad says “They make the perfect couple on the field” is about it.

Much of what is here is soap opera predictable — the step by step first seduction, the signals each gives the other — “She’s not my girlfriend.”

It’s the “jig is up” second half of the film that offers a few surprises along with the overly familiar. Teammates suspect, rumors and taunting ensues, the agents and franchise try to “manage” the situations.

“To be clear, no one here or on the board has a problem with this issue…it’s the sponsors!

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The soccer is solid, three-quarters-speed proficient, the locker room atmosphere convincing and the story’s resolution touching if somewhat pre-ordained. But the engaging leads, stumbling through a romance they’re too young to temper, finesse or control, give “Mario” the spark of life and make it another ground-breaking genre film that eventually Hollywood will get around to remaking.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, explicit sexual content, profanity

Cast: Max Hubacher, Aaron Altaras, Jessy Moravec

Credits:Directed by Marcel Gisler, script by Thomas Hess, Marcel Gisler and Frederic Moriette. A Wolfe release.

Running time: 2:04

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