‘Tigers’ Review: A Legal Minor Buckles Under Major-League Pressures

“Too much too soon” is a scenario that plays out in many life arenas, and it certainly does for the teenage protagonist swept into the professional sports world of “Tigers.” This year’s Swedish Oscar submission feature dramatizes Martin Bengtsson’s memoir of his brief, overwhelming stint in a leading Italian soccer club, whose pressures triggered a nervous breakdown. It’s a compelling tale, well cast and directed with vivid intensity by Ronnie Sandahl. Still, the somewhat frustratingly limited insight we get into our hero’s addled head may affect export prospects for a film that is more about psychology than athletics. At age 16 in 2003, Bengtsson (played here by Erik Enge) was considered such a football prodigy that he got sold by a Swedish club to Serie A behemoth Inter Milan. It was the realization of his lifelong dream, but that doesn’t mean he was prepared for the reality, particularly off-field. Speaking no Italian at first, able to communicate only with those teammates who speak English, he’s thrown into a dormitory-style living situation where virtually everyone is older and jaded. Nor does he get mentoring sympathy as the new fish: American Ryan (Alfred Enoch from the “Harry Potter” films), the sole teammate willing to befriend him, confides that “everybody hates you already” because they know Martin got a particularly lucrative contract. Nonetheless, he is simply auditioning for a spot on the real team like every other young draftee, subject to the same seemingly arbitrary assignments and demotions while his mettle is tested. He does prove his promise when given the chance, but that too can stir resentment in the ranks. Nor does Martin make things easy for himself: He is humorlessly driven, broods over the smallest setback and is not exactly an extrovert. Some emotional ballast is provided when he enters into a relationship with Vibeke (Frida Gustavsson), a free-spirited Swede working in Milan as a model. But his “owners” view any such outside attachment with disapproval, as a distraction from discipline and focus. When what little support network he’s created here is taken away, Martin falls apart. It is worth noting that for all he’s been through, he is still just a 17-year-old who had seldom left the roof of his mother (Liv Mjones).Bengtsson quit playing altogether, penning his bestselling memoir at 19 and continuing to forge a career as a writer. A closing text notes he was “one of the first to speak up against the football code of silence surrounding mental health issues among elite players.” But while Martin’s on-screen disintegration is etched with powerful conviction by Enge and his director, we never quite grasp what makes him tick, let alone what diagnosable ail he suffers from. The only clue offered to his psychological makeup is the anxiety with which he greets each mention of the father who’s made no effort to be part of his life for years. Otherwise, “Tigers” amply illustrates the self-destructive effects of this troubled hero’s distress, but illuminates very little of its cause. Even the initial freeze-out from fellow players isn’t lingered on enough to explain much. Martin aside, the other characters here are carefully noted in a disclaimer as not being “based on real people.” Still, they’re credible representations of variably hard-nosed and aspirational types in the athletic world. Enoch is excellent as the sole teammate given some dimension here, who’s mature enough to see a bigger picture than narrowly self-interested Martin can grasp. In an assured second directorial feature, Sandahl stays within the general thematic parameters of his screenplays for Janus Metz’s “Borg vs. McEnroe” and Olivia Wilde’s forthcoming “Perfect,” another fact-inspired sports tale (that one involving Olympic gymnastics). Not a great deal of time is spent on the field in “Tigers,” even those moments staying within the tunnel vision of Martin’s head. But as expertly crafted as the film is in design, tech and other respects, its central figure remains a bit more of a cipher than is ideal for what is, after all, primarily a portrait of an individual’s implosion under duress.

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