At the Movies: A British Charmer & a Troubling Documentary On Private Education

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“Phantom of the Open” 

How often do you see a comedy movie about golf? Recent years have seen a few popular US movies like the madcap “Caddyshack” (1980), featuring goofballs like Bill Murray and Rodney Dangerfield, and “Tin Cup” (1995), a semi-serious satire about the PGA tour starring Kevin Costner. Another ribald farce, “Happy Gilmore” (1996), is an Adam Sandler vehicle about a lousy hockey player who stumbles onto the professional golf tour. 

Now we have a sweet British golf comedy with a decidedly whimsical tone and, moreover, a saga that really happened. It is a heart-warming tale of an everyman attempting to compete in the most prestigious tournament in the sport, the British Open, with a heart-warming performance by its lead, Mark Rylance. (Rated PG-13, the movie runs 106 minutes.)

“Phantom of the Open,” directed by Craig Roberts, relates the story of one Maurice Flitcroft (Rylance), a fortyish crane operator in a north English shipyard who lives a routine life in a gritty city with his supportive wife Jean (Sally Hawkins) and three boys. The eldest is Michael (Jake Davies), ashamed of his family’s origins and looking to turn his life around as a respectable businessman. The other two boys, twins James and Gene (Jonah and Christian Lees), are lovers of disco music with dreams of becoming a popular dance duo. Maurice once promised his wife that their marriage would be “champagne, caviar, and diamonds,” but that didn’t quite work out.

While watching the 1975 British Open on the telly, Maurice has an epiphany about himself playing golf and triumphing in the Open (as it is called in England). This vision leads him to announce that he will enter the tournament, to the shock and chagrin of family and friends. After all, the man has never played a round of golf in his life! A total naif, he appears before the authorities, only to be rejected by the tournament director (Rhys Ifan) as having no credentials. Still, by an administrative fluke, he somehow enrolls and duly tees off. He then proceeds to play the worst round in tournament history ‒ 121 strokes. 

Flitcroft thus becomes infamous (famous) as the “worst golfer in history” but also gains national notoriety as a representative of two figures often beloved by the British public: the charming underdog and the dogged dreamer. By the way, he stuck to his dream: he tried to enter the Open multiple times, including one episode, shown in the film, where he used a disguise as a cheesy French golfer. 

This light comedy works because of Rylance, who shows both the simple guile and the earnest effort the character demands. One of the world’s most accomplished Shakespearean actors (and the first director of the New Globe Theatre), Rylance was born in 1960 and educated in the US. He began his acting career in the late 1980s, always balancing theater and film work. He came to be best known to American audiences through his leading role as Thomas Cromwell in two lauded BBC series based on the novel “Wolf Hall” (2015), the same year he won an Oscar for his role as a spy in the Steven Spielberg drama “Bridge of Spies.” 

Since those breakthroughs, Rylance has piled up laurels in other major pictures as a local seaman in “Dunkirk” (2017), defense attorney William Kunstler in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020), a bonkers scientist in “Don’t Look Up” (2021) and a mysterious tailor in the just released “The Outfit.” “Phantom of the Open” confirms the range and excellence of his work. 

“Accepted” 

“Accepted” offers a unique and intriguing look at the world of college admissions and the true cost of getting that first foothold into elite American society. This surprising documentary promises a heartening story of education for the beleaguered, when director and co-cinematographer Dan Chen introduces us to the promise and predicaments of the T.M. Landry College Prepatory school in rural Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. (The film, released in the DC area on July 1, runs 92 minutes and is not rated.)    

Landry Prep (founded in 2005) occupies a sparse warehouse in a poor town but has gained a reputation for sending its graduates to elite universities like Harvard, Yale and Stanford. The students supposedly receive rigorous academic training aimed to meet the intense expectations of the school’s charismatic director, Mike Landry. Co-founder of the school and Energizer Bunny Landry drives his kids like a drill sergeant, urging them on to their college dreams. Most of the school’s small population is poor black students with apparent potential to break out into new lives. 

Poster from the documentary “Accepted.” Image: Greenwich Entertainment

While the film shows little classwork being done, it highlights the relentless, boisterous demands of Landry, to whom the filmmakers gain unbelievable access. In alta voce, the director exhorts his charges to follow their dream by telling them they cannot fail if they work hard enough within his system. The kids are thrilled at the prospect and follow Landry’s lead by wearing sweatshirts labelled with the top schools they hope to attend. (The film recalls elements of 1980s “Lean on Me” with Morgan Freeman playing the role of a tyrannical principal.)

We follow the personal stories of four thoughtful students looking to overcome countless obstacles to achieve their dreams. Cathy, a bright Latina, is the pride of a single-parent household but has doubts: “This is not a normal school,” she says. Attractive Alicia lives at the poverty level but hopes she can bring her family and herself a better future. Adia is another Latina with high hopes, and Isaac, a handsome junior, carries his dreams on a sweatshirt emblazoned with a Stanford logo. 

Over the years, the tiny school receives national attention when the media report feel-good stories about kids attaining admission to major universities, but, in November 2018, the New York Times publishes an expose on Landry’s unconventional methods. In the story, the school is accused of doctoring transcripts and college applications, and Landry is alleged to have physically abused and pressured his students. Investigations ensue.

Each of the students we have followed in the film must contend with uncomfortable truths about their school and the overall college admissions system, and all decide to leave Landry for other educational prospects. 

“Accepted” may not rise to the quality of other recent film examinations of US high-schoolers, such as “Step” (2017) and “Boy’s State” (2020), but it still fills its more modest role with care and heart.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of the book “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.