Anyone walking into this film without prior knowledge of its nature might only realise they are watching a work of fiction when Ron Livingston – an all too familiar face – appears among the figures supposedly caught in the long lost footage of boxer Willie Pep’s comeback attempt in the 1960s.
Livingston plays Pep’s manager, who would rather see him auction off prized possessions and memorabilia than step back into the ring. James Madio stars as Guglielmo “Willie Pep” Papaleo, and even though audiences will have seen the actor before (be it in The Basketball Diaries, Band of Brothers or The Offer), none of these performances will be present in anyone’s mind, as they watch him embody the famous featherweight. Madio not only inhabits the character’s mannerisms and quirks authentically, his lines are spoken so nonchalantly, as if truly captured en passant, that they perfectly create the illusion of being taken from real life.
While framed as a documentary, The Featherweight mostly tackles things that wouldn‘t make the cut in a real example: uncomfortable social interaction, bickering right up to fighting, characters stumbling and flailing. Bit by bit, the film uncovers the sad reality of what really propels an ageing superstar’s return from retirement. Surprisingly, the biopic doesn’t seem to consider Willie Pep a hero, despite his astonishing accolades; instead the camera favours engaging with his Italian-American identity and ideas of machismo, the discordance between his family and his latest wife.
Director Robert Kolodny’s striking feature debut is a contemplative character study of an honest-to-goodness entertainer, who revels in the spotlight and seeks out even ill-disposed cameras in his desire to be seen. Kolodny’s previous work in cinematography, camera and departments, for both fiction (most recently The Sweet East) and non-fiction (All the Beauty and the Bloodshed), has sharpened his eye particularly for moments of silence that speak louder than words. The script works better for some characters than for others – or perhaps the credit goes to those actors who were able make it work better for them. There is the occasional one-liner that feels forced, but the overall impression of witnessing real moments of Pep’s life is maintained successfully.
The Featherweight takes off the gloves, so to speak, by daring to step beyond the expected sports success story to hit audiences where it hurts.
The Featherweight does not yet have UK release date.
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Watch a clip from The Featherweight here: