A lot of critics will probably compare this to the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, considered by many the best documentary ever made.
The underprivileged high school athletes we see in this are on the mats, not the hardwood.
Director Suzannah Herbert and co-directed Lauren Belfer actually went to live in Huntsville, Alabama to shoot this film, which ended up giving them hundreds of hours of footage; mostly focusing on four members of the J.O. Johnson High School team, as well as Coach Scribner (who also teaches social studies). A bit more of a backstory on him would’ve worked better, although we do find out a little about the struggles he had earlier in his life.
The athletes followed are Teague, a white guy who has been held back a few grades and thinks nothing of ditching school to buy weed. There’s Jamario, who is a real headcase. He’s a muscular, African-American kid who is dating a white girl, much to her father’s chagrin. He seems to have mental breakdowns fairly often.
Jailen is the only teen I liked and was actively rooting for. Early on, we see a story he wrote that hangs on his wall, along with his medals. He talks of not wanting to be a disappointment. He’s a great wrestler and does well in the classroom, too.
Jaquan is questioned by a police officer for public urination, shows attitude and mouths off a bit. My wife was surprised the teens didn’t think twice about smoking pot while a film crew followed them around. I was surprised the parents, who were often rather neglectful, didn’t seem to mind the cameras. Surely they realized they wouldn’t come out of this smelling like roses.
One of the things I love about watching movies with my wife is, she sometimes points out things I didn’t think about. For example, I was thinking it was odd that Coach Scrib called the wrestlers “bro” when talking to them. She mentioned the fact that he’s always using Obama’s name, saying things like, “I’ll get a letter from Obama.” She said, “Is he going to keep talking about Obama to them?” Later she said, “This guy certainly isn’t the White Shadow.”
The documentary does have some thought provoking moments. My wife and I debated the scene with the police officer and how things were handled. She was also more sympathetic to these kids because of how they were being raised and where. These were great points, but it just got to a point where if I’m watching people act like punks, it gets harder and harder to sympathize with their plight. Don’t get me wrong, I never stopped rooting for them to succeed and get those athletic scholarships and better their lives. It just made me think of how much I loved the kids on Lebron James high school basketball team from the documentary More Than a Game 11 years ago.
We both had mixed feelings on the coach and how he handled things, as a sort of father figure to these boys. With one of the wrestlers, it comes to a head in a way you won’t see coming.
Yet wrestling wasn’t as compelling as rock climbing in a few more recent documentaries, or skateboarding, and even spelling bees (I highly recommend you find Spellbound, which follows much more interesting subjects and delves more into their sometimes dysfunctional families).
This documentary is a bit formulaic, but it’s interesting enough, and it’s currently getting 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. That makes it worth seeking out.
Playing at the Digital Gym Cinema on El Cajon Blvd.
2 ½ stars out of 5.