An earnest portrait of deaf wrestler Matt Hamill, helmer Oren Kaplan’s modest debut feature reps a slender addition to the sports-movie annals but fascinates nonetheless in the way it illuminates issues facing the hearing-impaired. Marked by a surfeit of uplift and angsty cliches, but little in the way of the real drama, “Hamill” feels best suited to smallscreen play; still, with the AFI Film Festival’s audience award under its belt, the lightweight biopic could muscle its way into theaters before it’s pinned down as an inspirational tube/DVD item.
The most memorable figure in Joseph McKelheer and Eben Kostbar’s workmanlike screenplay is Matt’s grandfather, Stanley (Raymond J. Barry), a proud, upright man who refuses to coddle his grandson, pronounced “highly intelligent” and “profoundly deaf” by a doctor in the 1976-set opening reels. With Matt’s single mom (Susan Gibney) playing good cop, Stanley takes a tough-love approach, encouraging young Matt (Theodore Conley) to build strength and self-confidence by taking up wrestling.
By high school, Matt (now played by Russell Harvard) is a natural on the mat but has a harder time fitting in socially; after a predictable bout of prom-night heartbreak, he leaves his Ohio hometown to attend Purdue on a wrestling scholarship, only to flunk out. A second chance comes along by way of New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology, where, for the first time, Matt finds himself surrounded by deaf peers — a development that forces him to ditch his loner mentality and realize he can’t become a champion all by himself.
Giving Matt his greatest education are his friendly, outgoing roommate, Jay (Michael Anthony Spady), and Matt’s new g.f., Kristi (Shoshannah Stern), a student activist whom Jay amusingly labels “Miss Deaf Power.” Both Jay and Kristi serve to initiate Matt, and a good portion of the audience, into the ways of Deaf culture — particularly when it comes to sign language, which Matt, a lifelong lip-reader, must master. It’s these well-integrated details that sustain interest in “Hamill,” far more than its familiar underdog trajectory and heart-tugging third act.
The film’s primary asset is Harvard, whom sharp-eyed viewers will recognize as the actor who played the adult H.W. Plainview in “There Will Be Blood.” The lanky thesp bears little resemblance to the much beefier Hamill (who won three NCAA Division III titles and is best known as an Ultimate Fighting Championship star), yet engagingly presents the wrestler as a good-natured if often emotionally clueless individual with a stubborn streak. Spady and Stern are solid, respectively, as comic relief and supportive-but-challenging love interest.
Wrestling matches are well staged and shot, and one affectionate scene — in which Matt’s grandfather (embodied by Barry with grit and grace) joins him on the mat for a practice session — earns honest guffaws. Tech credits are unexceptional but sturdy; subtitles are superbly comprehensive, serving not only to assist deaf viewers, but also to translate the numerous signed conversations for general auds.
Treacly score is often overbearing, and the soundtrack’s recurring use of a low, ambient drone to simulate the experience of deafness feels mannered rather than illuminating.