On the surface of it, Olympic swimming champ Ian Thorpe’s first movie Streamline is a film about a young prodigy with the world at his feet, pushing for glory and podium finishes.
Filmed on the Gold Coast, the film shows us Benjamin “Boy” Lane (Levi Miller, Pan), 15, swimming lonely laps before dawn, surrounded by his controlling mother, a pressure-cooker coach and two hard-drinking, ratbag brothers.
Very quickly though, we begin to see that the film dives into Boy’s personal trauma of domestic violence as a child.
“More detrimental to his health is his absent father, who physically abused him as a child. Boy’s mother has trained him to hate his father, to put up walls and erase him from his memory,” says Umbrella Films.
“[His] unresolved trauma eats away at him, bubbling hot beneath
his surface, waiting to erupt.”
And that it does.
Playing Boy’s absent father, accomplished English actor Jason Isaacs – known globally for his Harry Potter role as Lucius Malfoy – tells The New Daily the film could appear to be a “classic sports movie … but it’s far from that”.
“Sports is the springboard, a catalyst for something much more complicated and emotional,” says Isaacs, speaking from London.
“[Levi] carries the film with a tremendous maturity. He’s playing a character who is somewhat traumatised. He has a certain level of obsession and PTSD. Who is he working for? ‘Am I doing this for my mum and dad, and why am I doing this?’
“He carried the gravity and trauma of his character rather brilliantly and found the right places.
“They’ve all had different experiences and are survivors of the traumatic upbringing but there’s even the man, who I am playing, who caused a lot of this carnage who is coming to terms with his own wreckage and his own responsibility,” says Isaacs, whose credits also include Showtime series Brotherhood and The Death of Stalin.
Written and directed by LA-based Tyson Wade Johnston, 30, the drama is personal, as he too was a competitive swimmer growing up in the New South Wales border town of Albury.
“It was my life and my first real passion,” he says.
“Ian Thorpe was my hero growing up,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I quit the moment my mum considered me old enough to make the decision for myself.
“That was a painful thing. I blocked the sport out of my mind for more than 10 years before I started writing the script. Swimming was this cold dark thing that I’d failed at …”
Inspired by Thorpe’s career, he tells If Magazine: “It’s a movie about my own experiences growing up inside of a broken family without a father around.”
“It’s about the pains my mum and my brothers and I all lived with at certain stages in our lives.”
The personal part of Johnston’s story is nothing like Thorpe’s.
The “exceptional” script found its way onto Thorpe’s desk, and it resonated. It felt authentic.
He later told Seven’s Sunrise he’d been given “different scripts for films over a period of time and this was the first one that I connected with and wanted to be involved with”.
“It’s a drama about a young man realising what he can do and having all of the potential in the world, and then having to realise that he is exceptional.
“Everyone else sees the talent, but he’s struggling with his own life.”
Thorpe worked closely with Miller, and according to the SMH, spent hours on the phone with the Jasper Jones rising star, to teach the “mannerisms” of top swimmers because he “wanted to get it right”.
“There are so many films that I’ve seen where I look at the swimmers and they’ve got no idea what they’re doing and we didn’t want that to be the case in this film,” he said.
‘Early mornings, late nights, sacrifices’
Isaacs says both Thorpe and Johnston understood what elite athletes go through, and how the highs and lows can take their toll.
“I think this is a pretty unique example – between the two of them – they had a perspective on what it takes and what champions go through,” he says.
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics almost over for another three years, Streamline is a film that gives context to, and reminds us of, the stresses and high levels of expectation that many elite athletes face.
Besides Thorpe, who documented his battles with depression in his 2013 memoir This is Me, fellow swimmers Grant Hackett, Michael Phelps and Caeleb Dressel have all spoken about their mental health issues.
Simone Biles withdrew from the US gymnastics team during the recent Games, and reigning US Open tennis champion Naomi Osaka, 23, also documented her mental health struggles in a recent Time Magazine article titled “It’s OK not to be OK”, after dropping out of the French Open.
For Thorpe, who the SMH says “took an interest in financing and distribution” of the film, “swimming is the undercurrent in all of this and it is a coming-of-age story”.
Adds Isaacs: “There are many reasons to see this film … it’s about a champion swimmer and we are in Australia where swimming is a religion. Two, if you are interested in sport at all, then you’ll know that all the greats have something cracked in their background.
“This is a peek behind the curtain and what it takes to be a champion.
“[And three, it’s how] we overcome adversity and how we triumph over all that kind of stuff, inner redemption – if you will.”
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Streamline will release in cinemas nationally on September 2 (pending state and territory COVID-19 restrictions) and on Stan from September 16