The underdog sports drama is an inspirational but essentially results-oriented film genre. No matter how hopeless the aspiring athlete(s) at the outset of proceedings, the story brings them, at the very least, to the brink of victory: talent is prized and rewarded. The Phantom of the Open (out now on multiple VOD platforms), however, is a pleasing exception to the formula – a sporting biopic in which the improbable hero’s outright crapness at his inexplicably chosen game is not just frankly stated but actively celebrated.
A middle-aged shipyard worker who blagged his way into golf’s 1976 Open Championship and proceeded to shoot the worst score on record, Maurice Flitcroft entered history mostly as a tabloid amusement. Buoyed up by a performance of twinkly good humour, with just an edge of yearning sadness, from Mark Rylance, Craig Roberts’s cheery film turns Flitcroft from punchline to paladin – a sportsman whose defiant lack of gifts dealt a symbolic blow to golf’s stuffy, wealthy gatekeepers . There’s perhaps a sharper satire to be made from his story of him, but The Phantom of the Open sticks throughout to a jaunty, feel-good agenda. It’s just a film that encourages us to feel good about losing egregiously.
You certainly can’t imagine an American version of Flitcroft’s story: Hollywood finds little ironic joy in shambling, defeated men, which is why they have a monopoly on underdog sports films to begin with. Rocky (Apple TV), the touchstone of the genre, was seen as revolutionary in its day for allowing Sylvester Stallone’s hard-up, hangdog journeyman to narrowly lose his climactic fight to the most famous, accomplished contender. His victory for him is one of nerve and determination, and that commitment is what gives the 1976 film its still-winning spirit. (The increasingly inflated, more cheerleading sequels largely missed the point.) Next to Flitcroft, though, Rocky Balboa is practically an Olympian god.
Splitting the difference is Eddie the Eagle (BFI Player), Dexter Fletcher’s bouncy biopic of British ski-jumper Michael Edwards, a plucky striver who became a national hero even as he was placed last in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Fletcher’s earnest film sticks up for personal bests and pushing your own limits. Taron Egerton’s cuddly performance refutes jockish stereotype. In the ranks of snowy underdog adventures, however, it takes second place to the delightful Cool Runnings (Disney+), which wrings the nominally true story of Jamaica’s first Olympic bobsledding team for maximum fish-out-of-water laughs, before proceeding to a moral-victory climax that, however sweetened and Disneyfied, still lands a genuine lump in the throat .
Boxing and fighting films offer the most scope for individual underdog stories, extending to mixed martial arts – as in the fraternal rivalry saga Warrior (Netflix), lent grace and gravitas by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton – and the absurd theater of wrestling. At the uplifting end is Florence Pugh’s from-the-bootstraps trajectory in the sweet, chipper Fighting With My Family (Curzón). Darren Aronofsky’s gruffly elegiac The Wrestler (Amazon Prime) evaluates a small-time career from the end of the road rather than the beginning, as never-say-die spirit turns movingly to, well, death.
Team sports – American ones in particular – make for the most upbeat, convivial examples of the genre, with ample room for community-minded life lessons. Baseball has given us the spiky misfit kids of The Bad News Bears (Amazon) – another film that finds jubilant victory in second place – and the snappy feminist pioneers of A League of Their Own (Chili), whose female ball players enter the field as underdogs to the patriarchy before they even pick up a bat.
American football is best represented by friday night lights (Google Play), an underrated film of great social texture and integrity, largely eclipsed by the more popular series it inspired. Basketball has the rousing, teenage David v Goliath sweep of hoosiers (Amazon). But it’s the rude, roughhousing ice hockey comedy slap shot (Chili), led by the irresistible Paul Newman, that stands out in the canon – not least for its flippant rejection of all the sportsmanlike principles that tend to drive the genre. Here, a scruffy team makes its name on violently bad behaviour, and earns its ultimate triumph by default. Maurice Flitcroft might have approved.
Also new on streaming and DVD
Everything Everywhere All at Once
That this whirling, brazenly absurdist comedy/fantasy/action hybrid has been such a sleeper hit in cinemas is cause for celebration in a cookie-cutter industry. At well over two hours, though, the film itself – about a Chinese American mother, gamely played by the marvelous Michelle Yeoh, charged with saving the world by tearing through multiverse timelines – is only intermittently as fun as it is frenetic.
Streaming exclusively on the genre service Shudder, South African film-maker Jenna Cato Bass’s clever, disquieting allegorical horror film hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Probing the age-old iniquities and inequalities of South Africa’s domestic service culture, it’s a subtle, superbly acted provocation, told through the eyes of a young Black woman taking up residence in the white Cape Town household where her mother de ella has labored for decades .
The Quiet Girl
Irish film-maker Colm Bairéad makes a strong but serenely understated impression with his lovely debut feature, a finely etched character study of a withdrawn, neglected nine-year-old girl gradually coming into herself under the care of kindly relatives. It’s unimpeachably gentle but never soft-edged or maudlin, shot through with real curiosity and understanding of how children think and feel.
A well-timed release for the Criterion Collection edition of this most palpably sun-kissed of summer romances: David Lean’s vibrant, bittersweet and gloriously Technicolored 1955 tale of a buttoned-up, unattached American (Katharine Hepburn in one of her greatest performances) living her Venetian dream for a single season.