In Robert Kolodny’s feature debut, “The Featherweight,” the protagonist, Willie Pep, tells a story about a boxing match with a young boy who asked for his autograph. Willie was flummoxed by the request, as he believed that they needed to put on a show for the crowd who came to see a fight. This story reflects Willie’s nostalgia and prompts his desire for a comeback at the age of 42.
“The Featherweight” is a fictionalized account of the real-life two-time featherweight champion, Willie Pep. Considered one of the greatest pure boxers of all time, Willie’s quick and lithe movements earned him the nickname “Will o’ the Wisp.” Screenwriter Steve Loff frames the story as a documentary, where fictionalized Willie invites a crew to capture his life on camera and showcase his inevitable success. While technically impressive, the film can feel emotionally arid as it becomes preoccupied with the details of crafting a documentary rather than the story itself.
Director Robert Kolodny’s background in non-fiction films positions him well for this project. Each frame of “The Featherweight” demonstrates an understanding of the camera as a shape-shifting interlocutor. Willie willingly submits to being watched in hopes of maintaining image control, but the spotlight proves to be unpredictable and unforgiving.
The film opens in 1964, four years after Willie’s retirement from boxing. It portrays Willie’s bleak life despite his persistent on-screen optimism. He is in his fourth marriage to Linda, an aspiring actress, and they have a complicated relationship. Willie is burdened with debt from risky gambling and constantly meets with his manager Bob to negotiate selling his prized possessions. His son Billy despises him, and Bill, the coach at his old boxing gym, doubts his comeback narrative.
Throughout the film, Willie remains congenial, light-hearted, and seemingly oblivious to the skepticism and unhappiness surrounding him. Close-up shots help build an intimate portrait of Willie, capturing his true emotions when no one is watching. Actor James Madio delivers a strong performance, particularly through his expressive eyes, which reveal Willie’s skittish and nervous energy. The exhaustion on Willie’s face is palpable.
“The Featherweight” is not a traditional sports biopic, but it focuses on an underappreciated figure and explores commentary on fragile egos, 1960s America, and the pursuit of nostalgia. Willie’s constant need to perform and reach an unattainable ideal of American masculinity becomes tiring. When his facade collapses, he is exposed to the camera’s severity, leading to moments of emotional turmoil and humiliation.
The editing by Robert Greene, blending staged and archival boxing footage, adds a lyrical layer to the film. It captures the beauty, allure, and brutality of the sport, as well as Willie’s glory days. These moments help the audience better understand Willie’s reputation and why people remember him in poetic language.
“The Featherweight” impresses with its technical aspects, including cinematography, production design, and costuming. However, the story feels overshadowed in comparison. While there is no expectation of a triumphant arc for Willie’s comeback plans, there is a desire for the narrative to have a stronger impact. The film leaves the audience, much like Willie left his audiences, captivated and ready to listen again and again.
Overall, “The Featherweight” is a technically impressive film that explores the life of a legendary boxer and his desire for a comeback. It delves into themes of nostalgia, masculinity, and the harsh realities of fame. While the story may feel secondary to the documentary-style approach, the film offers a compelling portrayal of Willie Pep and his struggles.