...shining light on the media, one review at a time
In an individualistic society like America, the idea that one should rely only on oneself is extremely common, to say the least. Often, that philosophy is encouraged by life experiences and even by the training kids receive at early ages. It’s up to them, they’re told, to work hard and be a success or to stop believing in themselves and fail. But what if the child happens to be deaf?
Though it may look like a sports movie, The Hammer is atypical for the genre. The film tells the true story of a deaf child who grows into a young man hoping to become a college wrestling star, but the focus is not on the sport. Rather, The Hammer surprises as a compelling coming-of-age drama that gives insight into the deaf world while exploring the difficulties, joys, failures, and successes of life.
Nearly derailed by negative content that makes the movie inadvisable for kids and young teens, the film ends up showing enough restraint to let the redemptive themes of love, teamwork, and selflessness emerge the winners.
In Matt Hamill’s mind, he does not have a disability. For the most part, Matt knows how to live as if he doesn’t have one. Though he can’t hear, he can talk and read lips—abilities that came through a lot of pain and hard work.
When Matt was young, his grandfather, Stanley, insisted that Matt stay in the public school system and not receive any special education, including sign language. Stanley means well, but his determination that Matt be just like any other kid puts the young boy in more than one difficult situation. The violent reaction Matt has to the inevitable teasing from his hearing peers reveals that Matt has a temper and is not afraid to get physical.
Hoping to channel that energy, Stanley convinces the school’s wrestling coach to allow Matt on the team. The coach is reluctant at first and convinced Matt will never make it as a wrestler. It only takes a few tries for Matt to change the coach’s mind by showing he has unusual talent for the sport. Thus begins Matt’s outlet and refuge in the sport of wrestling.
Through wrestling, Matt finds friends, an identity, and championship goals he can aim for. His success in the sport makes him better able to believe that he is just like everyone else, and he tries to live that way. Yet as Matt faces the normal teenage issues of a first love, the prom, etc., he encounters more than the usual complications.
Rejections and failures don’t end for Matt, even as he goes off to college with the aim that comes to define his life—winning the National Collegiate Wrestling Championship. All the while, Matt’s grandfather encourages him to believe in and rely completely on himself to achieve his goal. Since Matt’s deafness often leaves him feeling isolated in a world of his own, it isn’t hard to follow Stanley’s advice.
That is, until Matt falls in love, encounters the deaf community he never knew, and is forced to question his priorities. In order to attain happiness beyond an athletic trophy, Matt will have to learn that life and wrestling are team sports.
It’s almost become clichéd to say that a sports movie is about more than the sport it features. In this case, however, the statement is true, as the story off the wrestling mat easily overtakes the sports theme in both interest and screen time. In fact, the emphasis is so much on Matt’s development as a person that when the film tacks on a typical sports movie ending, the climax feels decidedly anticlimactic. The story is saved by the fact that Matt has already demonstrated a more meaningful personal development just before the pivotal wrestling match that the close of the film features.
The rest of The Hammer is more well-crafted and balanced, only showing segments of wrestling that forward the viewers’ understanding of Matt and his story. Because Matt is deaf, this tale offers unique scenarios and a fascinating look into a world that is different from the one most viewers know. Yet the strength of this film is not, as one might expect, in the singularity of the main character, but in his similarities to others. Despite being unusual in his lack of hearing, Matt is relatable on every level, making this a story about a young man facing the struggles growing up and life that are familiar to everyone.
This accessibility is further enhanced by the performance of the lead actor, Russell Harvard. Though a relative unknown, Harvard, who is deaf himself, appears immensely comfortable with the weight of this film riding on his shoulders. His appealing authenticity ensures that his character is someone viewers can understand and will want to root for. The supporting actors are also solid, playing their roles simply and real.
The cinematography is mostly straightforward, but has some moments of artistic creativity that make one want more of the same. Some of the best sequences are those that allow the viewers to experience Matt’s silent world, in which his other senses are heightened. These scenes are creatively and excellently executed.
Unfortunately, The Hammer is not quite so solid in its content, though the filmmakers are actually quite restrained in the offensive elements compared to other recent movies of this type. The first portion of the movie is almost free of problems, with the notable exception of several misuses of the Lord’s name in “Oh, my G--.” The trouble really starts when Matt journeys to college, where he encounters friends who lead and flaunt immoral lifestyles.
Matt’s oversexed college roommate is the worst , as he can’t seem to keep himself from fondling his girlfriend, ogling every female he sees, and encouraging Matt to be physically intimate with women. [SPOILER WARNING] When Matt’s roommate, Jay, is first introduced, he is actually engaged in making out (or something more) with his girlfriend. Jay and the woman are under a blanket, which Jay quickly discards to reveal he is shirtless and wearing only underwear. No nudity of the woman is shown. Jay clearly sees nothing wrong with what he was doing and, rather than being chagrined at Matt’s appearance, he says he hopes that Matt “enjoyed the show.”
To Matt’s credit, he doesn’t let Jay’s behavior rub off on him much. Matt is extremely focused on his academics and wrestling, to the point that he tries to resist noticing women. [SPOILER WARNING] When he does have a girlfriend, there are no obvious indications that he is intimate with her, beyond the few kisses they share.
In one scene, Matt’s girlfriend jokingly asks if Matt wants to “make out” in an effort to get his attention away from studying. To his credit, Matt chooses the studying over his girlfriend’s temptation. Matt does attend a party where there is excessive alcohol consumption and Jay, in particular, makes several inappropriate comments about women.
These negative elements and mature themes make The Hammer a poor choice for even young teenagers, but there are enough uplifting messages in the film to make it worth watching for older, discerning teens and adults. Matt is far from perfect, and chief among his problematic traits is a nasty temper that turns physical with little provocation.
However, The Hammer doesn’t condone the characters’ negative actions, instead making it clear that Matt and his friends have a lot to learn. Viewers are invited to watch that entertaining journey, rooting for Matt to become a champion on and off the mat.
Check out these similar titles:
The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend (L.A. Film Partners, 1991)
Sweet Nothing in My Ear (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2008)
Front of the Class (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2008)