Antoine Olivier Pilon Sam Yan England

Quebec Olympics drama Sam is a dated weepie posing as a sports film

Everything that could go wrong goes wrong in this shameless melodrama from director Yan England.

The first few minutes of Sam feel familiar. They’re about a young man (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who has become singularly focused on his training as a swimmer as the Olympics approach. Sam’s entire life has revolved around qualifying for the Olympics, to the point where his older sister (Mylène Mackay) has put her whole life on hold in order to act as his coach and manager.

It’s familiar both as a traditional sports movie setup and more pointedly as a film that has exactly the same setting as Pascal Plante’s Nadia Butterfly, which came out to near-universal acclaim last year. But Sam and Nadia Butterfly have little in common. This film, directed by Yan England, is much slicker and more in-tune with televisual language than Plante’s. The fact that Plante mainly used professional athletes rather than professional actors (though, weirdly enough, Pierre-Yves Cardinal pulls double duty by appearing in both films) certainly has something to do with the tone, but that’s not quite the whole picture.

Sam, as it turns out, is a hysterically overwrought drama disguised as a sports film. It’s a film of insane coincidences and tearful speeches the likes of which we usually only see in the work of Alejandro González Iñárritu. Sam’s distributor has asked the press not to reveal any spoilers about the film, which makes discussing it nearly impossible; suffice to say that Sam is the kind of film where you see preposterous twists and coincidences coming early on and hope against all hope that your predictions don’t come true.

Reader: they all did.

Antoine-Olivier Pilon Mylène Mackay Sam Yan England
Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Mylène Mackay in Sam, directed by Yan England

It’s obvious that England has been working at this film for years and years, since its unbridled earnestness and painfully soapy theatrics hearken back to a style of film that has since fallen out of favour with Hollywood: the mid-to-early 2000’s melodrama in the 21 Grams, Crash or Seven Pounds mold, old-fashioned weepies that somehow attempt to ground themselves in a frankly insane facsimile of social relevance. Sam never quite reaches the heights of the truly wretched films in this vein — Life Itself and Collateral Beauty being two that spring to mind — but it nevertheless occupies a similar space in which no good deed goes unpunished and even the granular specifics of one’s life are almost certain to come and bite them in the ass later on. With a Russian nesting doll-inspired structure of ever-increasing misery and improbable dramatics, Sam manages to be both preposterous and utterly predictable.

That’s not to say that Sam is entirely misbegotten and wrongheaded. It comes, I think, from a real place, and all of the actors do remarkably well considering some of the ridiculous things they’re asked to sell here. Given the sheer volume of contrivances on display, however, it’s very difficult to see them as anything but static avatars of misery and high drama. Working within many of the constraints inherent to Quebec téléromans, Sam almost feels as if it has been deliberately paced in order to drop a major twist before every ad break.

Like the work of the aforementioned Iñárritu, Sam is hardly incompetent work. It’s just incredibly preposterous and wrong-headed in the way it approaches nearly every emotional height — and all of it is basically emotional heights. It’s one thing for a film to have heart and to want to touch the souls of the audience; it’s a whole other thing to do it in such a ham-fisted and manipulative way. ■

Sam opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, July 28. Watch the trailer here:

Antoine-Olivier Pilon stars in Sam by Quebec director Yan England

For more film and TV coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.