Full disclosure: I’ve never liked Matt Hamill. I never saw his season of The Ultimate Fighter. I remain convinced that he lost that fight to Michael Bisping at UFC 75. His 10-2 MMA record includes (in my opinion) a single quality win. Most importantly, I just kinda think he looks like a dickhead.
Hamill was a three-time NCAA Division III national wrestling champion, and he looks every bit the part. The problem is that Hamill’s bio never starts with his wrestling prowess, his MMA career or how he looks like a dickhead; it starts with the fact that he’s deaf.
That’s the reason his life story has been fictionalized in the “inspirational” sports biopic that shares his last name. “Hamill” tells the story of his struggles with hearing impairment, focusing heavily on his first two years of college. It is a boring, ham-handed attempt at making “Deaf Rocky” and ultimately presents the thesis that everyone in the world is an asshole, and being deaf shouldn’t stop you from joining the party.
It seems like I am on record as hating on the handicapped, but I don’t mean it that way; I just object to the common practice of throwing handicapped people a ticker-tape parade every time they tie their shoes. Life is hard - often harder for some than others, and certainly harder for guys like Matt Hamill than for jerks like me - but we either treat these poor folks like freaks or praise them as conquering heroes; the needle never stays in the middle. Well, this is me treating Matt Hamill like a normal dude: he’s a good wrestler but a mediocre fighter whose deafness doesn't cancel out his "douchebag athlete" personality and whose life story probably wasn’t worth telling at the youngish age of 34.
Russell Harvard (grown-up H.W. Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”) plays the fighter and it was a smart choice. Originally pint-size (and hearing-capable) writer Eben Kostbar was to play the lead, but minor public outcry led to a switch to a deaf actor. Harvard’s personal attachment to the handicap helped keep some of the sillier sports movie tropes grounded Throughout the movie, the only true flaw in his performance is in the wrestling scenes; it’s fairly obvious that he just learned the sport a few weeks before shooting. If you ignore that (most might not even notice it), he actually does a lot with very little material.
It helps that Harvard is joined midway through the film by Professional Hot Deaf Girl Shoshannah Stern (Bonnie in ‘Jericho’, Megan in ‘Weeds’). I could seriously watch two hours of Stern performing Jersey Shore transcripts in ASL and be entertained. Like Harvard, she does her best with a weak script; the two of them excel at subtle expression but the plot usually calls for those nuances to be stepped on by a bad joke or a mini-parable about interpersonal communication. Stern’s character, Kristi, is defined almost entirely through exposition (spoken and signed) and the relationship between the two characters plays second fiddle to the tired sports story at the heart of the film.
Let’s count the cliches, howboutit? There’s the stubborn main character with a troubled home life, his tough-as-nails grandfather (Raymond J. Barry, aka Arlo Givens on Justified), sport as a means to a void in his life, early struggles as he tries to find his way, the wacky mentor/sidekick who helps him along, the surprising upset as he gains his footing, the villainous opponent who everyone fears, the untimely death of his inspiration, the falling out with his girlfriend, the underdog run through a big championship, the well-timed showdown with the aforementioned villainous opponent, the miraculous victory, the post-win reunion with his girlfriend and happy ending. I’d tag that with a spoiler alert, but if you’ve seen a single sports movie this decade you would have seen every one of these devices and twists coming.
"Hamill" has seen a lot of positive buzz, and I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, it won the Audience Award at the Florida Film Festival (where I saw it) partially/mostly because the audience for that screening was loaded with hearing-impaired viewers who gave it a standing ovation (and, I’m assuming, high marks on the ballots). As a movie for deaf people to rally around, it’s a success.
However, as a “based on a true story” biopic, it fails miserably. The saccharine coating and selective storytelling (for example, it ends with a postscript about Matt & Kristi getting married but no mention that they divorced two years or so before the film started production) make it feel less like a story of inspiration and more like a blind (no pun intended) money grab disguised as an inspirational story. Kostbar and co-writer Joseph McKelheer have said they got the idea for the movie from seeing Hamill on the aforementioned Ultimate Fighter reality series, so it comes off like they saw the deaf guy and just figured they could milk a sports movie out of him.
Unfortunately Hamill’s actual story doesn’t hit the same dramatic high notes. Like I said, he was a good wrestler to begin with - good enough for a scholarship to a Big Ten wrestling program (Purdue) - so his three national championships have nothing to do with being deaf. Any attempt at showing how Hamill had to overcome this to compete with “normal” athletes disregards the fact that he was already an above-average athlete; it’s disingenuous.
"Hamill" does do one great thing for the deaf community’s struggle to be regarded as equals: throughout the movie, pretty much every character is an asshole, whether they can hear or not. Matt’s grandfather refuses to accept his handicap, his youth wrestling coach swoops in on his single mom and becomes his stepfather, his prom date deserts him then marries his best friend, the Purdue coach drops his scholarship, his deaf teammate at the new school is a cocky showboat (who also inexplicably becomes a black man in this movie version - DIVERSITY!), other deaf people resent the hearing people, his future girlfriend/wife Kristi (despite being hot) is kind of militant about deaf issues and also basically dumps him until he wins a national championship, oh and by the way Matt is kind of a major dickhead to everyone throughout the movie. In that respect, it’s a fair representation of the man.
It’s great for deaf people to have a champion, I just don’t think Matt Hamill is that champion...both because of his continued standoffish behavior towards the deaf community and because he will literally never become a UFC champion. The movie does help even the playing field by showing that being deaf and being an asshole aren’t mutually exclusive, and while I doubt that’s the message they are going for it goes a lot further than the underdog-conquers-while-music-swells bullshit that they committed to paper.