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Don't bother with clumsy, clichéd story

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It's a tragic, heart-wrenching and, ultimately, inspiring true story.

And unfortunately, it has been transformed into a rather tepid TV movie.

The Phantoms, which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC, is a homegrown drama inspired by the story of the Bathurst (New Brunswick) Phantoms, a high school basketball team that rose up after a devastating tragedy and achieved a triumph no one could have predicted.

The story is well documented: while travelling back from a game in Moncton in January 2008, a 15-passenger van carrying members of the team was involved in a highway accident that killed seven players and the coach's wife. Despite the belief by many that the school would be forced to cancel its basketball program, a year later an undermanned Phantoms team won the New Brunswick provincial AA high school championship.

As tales of resilience, courage and the triumph of the human spirit go, you'd be hard pressed to find anything more impressive. As it's retold in The Phantoms, however, the story is reduced to a series of overwrought moments in which various players and townsfolk experience epiphanies that suddenly allow them to transition from grief-induced paralysis to forward-focused determination.

It's an oversimplification, narratively and emotionally, that feels like a disservice to what the people affected by the real-life events must have experienced.

The Phantoms stars Tyler Johnston (Keep Your Head Up: The Don Cherry Story) as Corey Boucher, a survivor of the crash that killed seven of his friends. Wracked by survivor's guilt and unsure if he can face his classmates when the new school year begins, he has no intention of playing ball again.

But when transfer student Luke Thibodeau (Kyle Mac, Murdoch Mysteries) shows up, eager for a senior year of basketball that will produce a college scholarship, staff at the school are forced to discuss a topic they've avoided since the accident.

Ultimately, the team's coaches (played by Wally McKinnon and Winnipeg-born actor Greg Bryk) decide to hold an open tryout to see if there's sufficient interest and/or talent to fill a roster. It looks pretty bleak until Luke manages to convince Corey that it's time to restart his life, and that the best tribute he could pay his fallen teammates would be to keep playing basketball.

The exchange is one of several in The Phantoms that are so predictable and overwritten that they're actually a bit uncomfortable to watch.

Luke inspires Corey, and he's able to overcome his grief. Corey inspires Tess (Holly Deveaux), whose boyfriend died in the crash, and she's able to overcome her grief. Tess inspires her mother, Linda (Wendel Meldrum), who has been fiercely opposed to restarting the basketball program, and she is eventually able to overcome her grief. And so it goes.

The actors in The Phantoms do the best they can with the material they've been given, so it's fair to say the performances are uniformly solid. But the story is filled with so many sports-movie clichés that it barely leaves itself any time to consider the emotional journey of its characters.

News reports this week suggest that CBC is airing this movie despite protests from some of the crash victims' parents, who have called the film an opportunistic attempt to cash in on their families' tragedy. If they bother to watch, they likely won't find anything here to allay their concerns.

Its producers may have the best of intentions at heart, but The Phantoms is a rather lacklustre tribute. Twitter: @BradOswald


The Phantoms

Starring Tyler Johnston, Kyle Mac, Holly Deveaux, Wendel Meldrum and Greg Bryk

Sunday at 8 p.m.


2 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2012 D3

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