TONIGHT: The Phantoms take on N.B. tragedy

The Phantoms: these young actors sweated for their shots

On the one hand, it is easy to see why this CBC TV-movie The Phantoms (premiering tonight at 8 p.m.) has a lot of folks spooked.
There’s the tragic, true life story. A van carrying 15 passengers, mainly members of a small town New Brunswick high school basketball team, crashes on a snowy January night. Seven young students as well as the wife of the coach–who was driving–are killed.
The town of Bathurst, pop. 13,000, goes into mourning. Everybody knew these families.
The very next season, a new student hoping to advance to college ball starts asking for the basketball program to be restored at the same prominent N.B. sports school. After much soul searching in the community–and against the wishes of some of the parents of the children lost in the crash–Bathurst forms an undermanned, yet strong and motivated, team.
In a Disney movie-style finish, they go all the way to the 2009 provincial finals–and win.
In the States, where high school sports is almost a religion, this would be heralded as another Hoosiers or Friday Night Lights. Much of the Canadian press surrounding the launch, however, focuses on the perceived lack of sensitivity on the part of the filmmakers.
The title of the team, and the film, probably hasn’t helped. In this instance, there’s something morbid or at least unsettling, about a title that conjures up images of ghosts from the past. If the film or team had been called the Bears or the Vikings it might have made folks less queasy.
Producers Tim Hogan (a Bathurst High grad) and Rick LeGuerrier took steps to bring the community on board with the project. They shot it all in Bathurst, used the very gym where the team plays its games, involved actual coaches and former students in the production, including BHS grad Wally MacKinnon, who plays coach Marc Babineau.
Wendy Meldrum (Less Than Kind) plays the mom of one of the boys lost in the crash and her character speaks for those in the community opposed to the new team (and, really, this movie). That she comes around probably won’t play that well in Bathurst.
I can’t imagine the horror of losing a child and can understand why these folks do not want to relive this terrible time. A student at my daughter’s high school died in a van crash that broke many hearts in our community, and her father’s anguish at the graduation ceremony the following spring will never leave me.
As a viewer with no connection to Bathurst I found the film cliched yet compelling. The universal themes of triumph coming out of tragedy are all explored.
I liked the way director Suds Sutherland dove right into the details of high school life, showing the awkward nerdiness of dances and other high jinks. A road trip hotel room scene where one of the Bathurst students makes up a rap on the spot was in fact made up on the spot, says Sutherland. The director also took pains to make the basketball scenes real, holding a two week B-Ball boot camp before production started to get his young actors into some sort of starting five shape.
Of the teammates, Kyle Mac brings an outsider’s edge to his role as newcomer Luke Thinodeau. Tyler Johnston gets most of the face time as brooding survivor and star player Corey Boucher.
Andrew Wreggitt’s script lacks the complexities of, say, Friday Night Lights, but that’s a pretty high bar. What is captured well in The Phantoms is the character of the town, which looms over the TV-movie like so many wooden houses on a high hill. The place seems real, and you feel genuinely connected to this small town Canadian community, even from as far away as Bathurst Street, Toronto.
For more on The Phantoms read this story I wrote for The Canadian Press.

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