You Never Knocked Me Down
By Vikram Murthi

The Featherweight
Dir. Robert Kolodny, U.S., no distributor

The Featherweight screened Saturday, March 16, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.

At the tail end of The Featherweight’s closing credits, the final line under “The Director Wishes to Thank” reads “John Cassavetes, Albert & David Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker.” Though it would be creative malpractice for director Robert Kolodny to deny those cinematic influences over his debut feature, it also feels slightly redundant at that point to acknowledge them. An explicit homage to mid-century verité documentary tradition, The Featherweight follows boxer Willie Pep from 1964 through 1965 as he attempts to stage a comeback in his mid-forties after retiring as the winningest fighter in history. An opening title card says that Willie gave the crew “unprecedented access” as he considers returning to the ring, and subsequently the film features an “observational” approach to the aging athlete’s life.

While Willie Pep was a real boxer whose record and story are all true, The Featherweight’s conceit is staged. Willie is played by actor James Madio with equal parts vim and desperation. Other performers play Willie’s colleagues, like his former trainer Bill Gore (Stephen Lang) and manager Bob Kaplan (Ron Livingston), and family members, such as his fourth wife and aspiring actress Linda (Ruby Wolf) and his troubled twenty-something son Billy (Keir Gilchrist). Kolodny and his team, including cinematographer and younger brother Adam, expertly recreate mid-’60s Hartford, Connecticut, where the film is set and was filmed.

Authenticity and immersion are evident aesthetic goals for The Featherweight—most everyone involved constructs a persuasive simulacrum of mid-century working-class boxing life and a Northeastern Italian-American community. At the same time, the film stands in active conversation with various genres and filmmaking modes, never letting its audience forget its forebearers. The history of boxing cinema, and all its requisite iconography and narrative tropes, are present and commented upon in The Featherweight. Willie begins the film essentially as Raging Bull’s post-retirement Jake LaMotta, albeit in much better shape and in less legal hot water, and he clearly uses the film crew as a brand-building, myth-maintaining enterprise. A fighter who once was on such a hot streak that not even the injuries he suffered in a plane crash could stop him, Willie has a vested interest in reminding the world of his power in the ring. Alas, various midlife challenges get in the way, and the crew documents every family squabble and hard-to-watch practice bout, which inevitably go against Willie’s wishes to present a clear-cut portrait of a champion.

Produced and edited by Robert Greene, who has spent his entire career probing the cinematic artifice and performativity inherent in non-fiction, The Featherweight actively engages with core ideas behind direct cinema and verité, residing in a blurry middle ground between the two genres, that is between minimizing a documentarian’s presence and actively participating in the action. (There has always been considerable overlap between direct cinema and verité, and the idea of a purely fly-on-the-wall documentary cinema doesn’t stand up to much critical or practical scrutiny, but if I continue to detail decades-old debates about non-fiction film practices, we’d be here all week.) Kolodny subtly fleshes out the film-within-the-film crew as The Featherweight progresses, i.e., though the film’s subjects frequently recognize their presence, they initially strive for minimum intervention until they feel compelled to comment upon the unfolding events. When Linda politely asks the crew not to include a tense scene where Willie aggressively interrupts her viewing party in celebration of a bit role she played in a TV show, the cameraman awkwardly denies her request and damages her trust in the process. They eventually ignore Willie’s requests to cease filming entirely as he slowly loses control of the film; at one point, a cameraman follows him into a bar bathroom against his explicit wishes where they find Billy strung out on heroin.

Despite technically being a sports biopic, The Featherweight admirably resists strict genre definitions by foregrounding the prevailing period-appropriate documentary aesthetic—mainly the lightweight handheld camera that facilitated the rise of intimate, low-budget work by the likes of Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers—and strongly committing to its narrative’s realism. By utilizing 16mm lenses on a digital camera and myriad post-production effects, Kolodny’s team effectively evoke its era, especially the dark hues and lightly faded primary colors. (Production designer Sonia Foltarz and costumer Naomi Wolff Lachter both do heavy lifting in capturing mid-’60s décor and outfits on a limited budget.) Most impressively, the boxing scenes from the 1940s, featuring Willie in his heyday, were shot with a mix of 16mm and 8mm film but integrate real archival footage and digitally manipulated stills.

The result is remarkably seamless, and yet by its very nature, you’re constantly aware of the seamlessness as artifice. Kolodny embraces this underlying tension between honesty and pretense without capitulating to one or the other, which neatly reflects how people foster mythos in the public eye, all while paying respect to the film’s real subject and his life. Madio plays Willie’s strengths and flaws at once, illustrating that they’re permanently entangled. The tunnel-visioned aggression that made him a great fighter in the ring is a frequent liability in his personal life. His professional ambition took him to the top, but it rendered his family a fractured mess, with broken hearts and shattered childhoods left in his career’s wake. These contradictions, and his dawning awareness of them, all register on Madio’s face in every close-up; he knows in his bones that a fighting record etched in stone doesn’t keep a legacy alive.

The Featherweight’s shortcomings all lie within the writing, which treads a thin line between the film’s broad genre elements and specific formal construction. When the direction and the photography work in tandem with Steve Loff’s script, the film can generate a neat illusion where the audience buys into the faked reality. Bill Gore may speak in gruff trainer platitudes, but his tough-love interactions with Willie gesture towards a deeper truth. The film’s boxing scenes, as well as the public events Willie attends alongside the also retired Black boxer Sandy Saddler (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), carry enough realistic weight to compensate for the occasional trite line (“I just need a few fights!”) and some overly familiar training imagery. Yet, the rigidity of the film’s narrative arc combined with certain shorthand characterizations can shift The Featherweight off balance. Wolf’s poignant portrayal of a young dreamer stuck in a family who doesn’t respect her can’t overwrite the character’s forced arrangement within Willie’s story. Similarly Billy’s slide into addictive rock bottom may be rooted in the truth, but its depiction on screen feels clumsy and stale. As The Featherweight moves into its final 20 minutes, it starts to resemble more of a traditional biographical drama than the documentary replication from which it started.

Yet even if The Featherweight falters in its home stretch, its final scene, which finally features Willie back in the ring, expresses uncommon prosaic poetry. Chalk it up to the fact that it’s filmed in a style that deliberately breaks from the aesthetic of the rest of the film, or that it’s scored to an early demo version of a well-known song that should go unspoiled, but Kolodny energizes the myriad clichés embedded in the scene. A famous Truffaut quote—“The film of tomorrow will be an act of love”—immediately follows the Special Thanks section in The Featherweight’s end credits. The sense of adventure, the internal fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds, exhibited in the film’s final shot carries the spirit of that citation.