Sudz Sutherland’s The Phantoms promises cathartic TV for Canadians

The three-hanky TV movie from the CBC is less about whether a ragtag bunch of high school basketball players win or lose, but how a small New Brunswick town turns true-life tragedy into unlikely triumph.
PhantomsSudzSutherlandCBC-1

Get ready to purge, Sudz Sutherland is telling Canadians.

In a good way, Sutherland (pictured on set) quickly adds, more a thorough cleansing of the tear ducts ahead of the debut on Nov. 18 of The Phantoms, a CBC TV movie from indie producer Dream Street Pictures.

“You will cry. And that’s okay,” Sutherland said of the MOW based on the true-life aftermath of a 2008 road accident that killed seven Bathurst, New Brunswick high school basketball players and the coach’s wife, followed a year later with the school’s boys basketball team miraculously winning the provincial championship.

There’s happy moments, and there’s sad moments.

But Sutherland deliberately focused on the emotional healing of a grieving New Brunswick town, rather than the tragic accident itself.

“It’s huge, for us to make this film, and the producers have to be celebrated for doing it in an emotionally sensitive way as they made a lot of right moves,” he adds, tipping his hat to producers Timothy Hogan and Rick LeGuerrier, and screenwriter Andrew Wreggitt.

All of which promises the TV movie’s audience a healthy emotional release.

“That’s what attracts me as a filmmaker,” said Sutherland, whose TV work includes episodes of Heartland, Drop the Beat and Degrassi: The Next Generation, alongside movie credits like Love Sex & Eating the Bones and the upcoming spring 2013 release of Home Again.

“I want people to think this guy can do emotional work. He can look at the cathartic nature of a work,” he added.

If anything, Sutherland has men in mind for a good blubber after watching The Phantoms’ climatic ending.

The director insists he sees his wife and daughters have little trouble expressing or resolving their own emotions.

It’s men, by contrast, that would hide or bottle up their emotions, were it not for the occasional release and relief to be had by seeing hockey players duke it out on Hockey Night in Canada or by shooting someone in a video game.

The three-hanky ending for The Phantoms – where the final buzzer has the team players celebrating victory and parents and fans standing up and cheering – marks a departure for the CBC from rival Canadian networks that these days mostly prefer fill-in-the-blanks costume dramas with Europe as a backdrop.

No alienating audiences in those sword-and-sex-fests by plumbing the deepest, darkest recesses of our psyche for an emotional breakthrough as the final credits roll.

Sutherland’s roller-coaster ride with The Phantoms, by contrast, aims to mirror the cathartic journey that the residents of Bathurst took as tragedy was turned into triumph.

That emotional arc includes a haunted Bathurst high school and town debating whether to resurrect the Phantoms basketball team itself, and reluctant players getting at each other’s throats as they gingerly get back on the court before eventually gelling as a team.

And there’s the meet-lose-get love story between Corey, a surviving basketball player played by Tyler Johnston, and Tess (Holly Deveaux), who struggles with the loss of her boyfriend killed in the accident.

In the end, The Phantoms as a sport film is not so much about whether a ragtag bunch of basketball players win or lose, but how they get up and dust themselves off in the face of their fans after enduring deep and dark adversity in life.

“Any scene, whatever we’re looking at, it always comes down to the resilience of the human spirit,” Sutherland insisted.

The Phantoms will premiere on the CBC on Nov. 18 at 8 p.m.