Brent Hodge combines sports and comedy with LA basketball doc ‘Pistol Shrimps’

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A pistol shrimp has one claw that is half the size of its body, and it uses that appendage to stun its prey—but the documentary Pistol Shrimps, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, is not about these sea creatures. It follows the eponymous Los Angeles-based women’s basketball team. In 2015, the Pistol Shrimps vanquished their league competitors by winning every game—after finishing at the bottom of the league in the four previous seasons. At the risk of pushing a metaphor, the women “ballers” are also stunning, and director Brent Hodge did a wonderful job of capturing their competitive and creative spirits in his tongue-in-cheek documentary.

Nearly all of the Pistol Shrimps are comedians and actresses, although most of them had never played basketball before signing with league founder and actress Maria Blasucci. In one interview, a longstanding player admits that she still does not understand all those “X’s” on the play diagrams. Hodge captures that breezy, droll attitude in his well-edited documentary that shifts from interviews with team members to good footage on the court. The project came together when the filmmaker met forward Aubrey Plaza in a Manhattan coffee shop. Hodge admits that he knew very little about basketball before making Pistol Shrimps. “I’m from Canada,” he says in a telephone interview from New York City. “We have hockey and soccer.”

Narration in Pistol Shrimps is from Matt Gourley and Mark McConville “broadcasting from the court.” The two men, literally seated in a corner of the basketball court at the Pan Pacific Park public recreation facility, often don’t bother with the play-by-play, and even when they do, they are not very good at it—but they are funny. Sometimes, Matt and Mark, who can be heard on Pistol Shrimp podcasts, are joined by the “Sock Guy,” who reports on the fashionable socks worn by team members. Whether the Pistol Shrimps are playing the She-Cago Bulls, the LA Nail Clippers, the Miss Demeanors, or the other cleverly named women’s league teams, there is always the half-time show, ostensibly appropriate for all audiences (children use the facility), although scantily cut costumes and a few suggestive moves evoke the dance team’s role models, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. Quick cuts to fans, shouting from court side bleachers, indicate a largely male constituency.

Hodge’s interviews with the women are at first sober in comparison, until one 37 year-old model and actress, Molly Hawkey, shows the filmmaker how she “photoshops” her way into the popular television show “The Bachelor.” A pair of players from the Ba Dunka team hilariously chronicle the rise of the Pistol Shrimps from losers to league champions. Player Angela Trimbur admits that the women on her team are the only ones who compliment her without the “knife vibes” that she says are the hallmark of compliments from all the other women she knows in Los Angeles. “The women were naturally comedic,” Hodges says. “I admired what they were doing, too.” Jesse Thomas, the team’s guard and a talented singer-songwriter, stands out from the others because she plays like a pro. “Jesse would never claim that she is the reason they are winning now,” the filmmaker says. Like professional athletes, Thomas gives all the credit to her team.

Comedy requires great timing, and Hodges, who started his career as an editor of “200 or 300 audio podcasts,” has an excellent sense of how to pace a documentary that is not so much about basketball as it is about a group of savvy, hardworking, wise-cracking women who make an unusual commitment to each other. “It’s so hard to make comedies,” he says. “I know what I think is funny, and when I’m filming I see the edits in my head right away.” Hodge often does his own camera work, and he is in the thick of it in post. “I’m so glad to know that other people though it was funny,” he says, after being told that chuckling could be heard during the press screening.

Pistol Shrimps and Hodge’s previous documentary, A Brony Tale (2014), about older men who are fans of the children’s show “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” were co-produced by Morgan Spurlock. (Pistol Shrimps will stream on Seeso, a comedy subscription service.) Asked about his six month completion time for Pistol Shrimps, Hodges replies: “This documentary was already in place. I just had to document it. When I started, I thought there is no way this could be a fiction movie because people wouldn’t believe it. It’s just too bonkers.”