THE HAMMER (HAMILL) – SLIFF Review
Inspirational sports films are a dime a dozen, with a notable few that stand out, such as MYSTERY ALASKA, but rarely does one rise to the surface as an exceptionally memorable experience for viewers. For the most part, there’s a standard formula by which these films follow, neither good nor bad, but it’s a formula that works so it rarely changes. This is an important concept to keep in mind while watching THE HAMMER.
Directed by Oren Kaplan, THE HAMMER (also known as HAMILL) follows this formula closely, handing in an accomplished but familiar inspirational sports story of a young man rising to become the best, in this case as a wrestler. There’s nothing shameful in this, as the goal of such a film is to inspire audiences after all. The difference in this case, is in the subject matter and a particular creative choice which I found subtle but extraordinarily pleasing in the way the story is told.
Russell Harvard (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) plays Matt Hamill, hearing impaired from birth, he struggles to find his place growing up as the only deaf child in a small rural town. Despite his mother’s desire for him to learn sign language and attend a special school, Matt’s grandfather Stanley resists, pushing Matt to rely on himself, be strong and not fall into the trap of feeling bad for himself. From this “tough love” approach, Matt eventually rises to his own potential and becomes one of the best college wrestlers.
As with many films of this nature, the obvious payoff at the end of the film is not the most rewarding. THE HAMMER is all about the journey, the ups and downs of Hamill’s life, which is dominated by downs. Harvard captures the intricacies of a young man struggling to become a success without the traditional tools given to a deaf child, such as sign language. This become one more obstacle that Matt must overcome, at first learning to read lips as not to rely on others, but eventually learns the value of letting others help after meeting a fellow deaf student named Kristi, played by Shoshannah Stern (Television’s JERICHO and WEEDS). Stern herself is deaf, but her performance is greater than just her situational authenticity.
Raymond J. Barry (LITTLE CHILDREN, Television’s JUSTIFIED) delivers a sturdy performance as Matt’s grandfather Stanley. He provides the rough, no frills essentials that I think of when I imagine this “cold and hard exterior, soft and gooey interior” type of character. Michael Anthony Spady plays Matt’s college roommate and best friend Jay, but the film truly revolves around Matt, his grandfather and Kristi, both of whom help Matt grow in their own ways.
Kaplan taps the heart string; he develops the relationships and emphasizes the difficult times, all elements that fit perfectly within the mold of an inspirational film. The one thing that stands out for me above all else, aside from the choice to cast deaf actors including Russell Harvard and Shoshannah Stern, is the way Kaplan handled key moments in Hamill’s personal growth, moments of significance that shape his character. These most crucial experiences are conveyed in silence, not a mechanical silence, but a living, organic silence that illustrates the world in which matt lives. The result is an increased sense of being in the moment and a heightening of the dramatic impact for the viewer.
THE HAMMER also employs subtitles in a creative way, illustrating Matt’s struggle with reading lips. These little touches are what allow THE HAMMER to stand out from the crowd as an above average inspirational film, despite what might often feel a bit like a Hallmark movie, but also happens to be based on a true story. Matt Hamill is a real person, which is ultimately the most inspirational aspect of such films. At the end of THE HAMMER, the audience is treated to the genre standard of meeting the real life character, but the film wouldn’t be complete without this opportunity.
Saturday, November 12th at 4:15pm – Tivoli Theatre