If you watch enough movies, you can spot a promising one in its opening scenes. And if it looks like it might be following a too-conventional path, you can’t help but wonder “How’re they going to make this surprising?”
“Streamline” is a sleek and surprising Australian coming-of-age drama set against a backdrop of competitive swimming. It lulls you into thinking “It’s all about sticking to the tried and true,” but twist after twist cleverly upsets our expectations.
It’s about a broad-shouldered 15 year-old destined for Olympic glory, or so everybody says. And insists. And badgers the living heck out of him about.
Benjamin Lane (Levi Miller of “A Wrinkle in Time”) hears it from his trainer-of-champions coach (Robert Morgan), who comes close to the “bullying” line before actually crossing it. Benjamin gets it from his mother (Laura Gordon), who is structuring their lives around his “big meet” and the chance to make it to the Olympic trials. There’s even a sports academy ready to “test” him and make him an offer — an education and the best coaching money can by, on scholarship.
It’s his “ticket out,” Mom reminds him. And herself. Because we’re getting hints that he must “Leave whatever’s going on at home — at home!” His mother takes calls and storms out of the house to finish them, always with a flourish of shouting. His girlfriend (Tasia Zalar) is the daughter of the “You can talk to me, any time” guidance counselor. But whatever’s going wrong in his life, Ben’s taking this all on himself.
We get hints about the rest of the family, but not enough to wholly explain his mother’s mania and his coach’s pressure packing.
And then we get a glimpse of the father (Jason Isaacs), we see how he affects the kid, and get another dose of how much Mom hates him. But we take our cues from Ben, and he’s on the fence about the man.
Writer-director Tyson Wade Johnston’s debut feature trips up expectations as we wander, like a confused kid, through Ben’s thought processes, pressures and responses to those pressures. I was reminded of two films that “Streamline” and its big themes graft together — the “ticket out” Tom Cruise sports drama “All the Right Moves,” and the Aussie kid-amongst the predators saga “Animal Kingdom.” Because whatever his out-of-control mother and over-the-top coach are pushing, “the rest of the family” might not be the escape Ben needs from this regimented, chlorinated nightmare his life has become.
I like the way Johnston teases out the clues about what the “troubles back home” might be, how he (and Miller) show us not just the emotional cost, but the physical one. Ben gets cupping treatments and physical evaluations, all pointed at one goal, a goal he seems disinterested in, in light of everything going on “back home.”
Miller delivers a poker-faced turn as a kid who has absorbed the dogma “Never let them see you sweat/struggle” even as the script never lets us forget that he’s just 15, forced to make decisions that will alter his entire future.
All kids are impulsive, rash and under-informed about consequences at 15, especially athletic ones. Think of the Russian skater pushed to cheat by her cheating-is-our-culture Olympic medal-factory.
If there’s a fault to “Streamlining,” it’s that the surprises don’t continue, start to finish. There’s an aversion to being honest about what big distractions, huge mistakes and breaks in training can do to an athlete’s chances in such movies, all the way back to “All the Right Moves.”
But a stellar cast makes us invest in this tragedy-in-the-making, because it’s the rough patches and detours that let “Streamline” find its way to clear water.
Rating: unrated, violence, teen sex, alcohol abuse, profanity
Cast: Levi Miller, Laura Gordon, Tasia Zalar, Jake Ryan, Robert Morgan and Jason Isaacs.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Tyson Wade Johnston. A Blue Fox release.
Running time: 1:26