— Muhammad Ali acts like a giddy child in the cockpit of a jet flying to Zaire and piloted by Africans. “I’m free,” Ali exclaims, “I’m free!” as he shakes his shoulders. He had never seen a black pilot before…
— During a pick-up game at his neighborhood court, a star high school basketball player witnesses his dad buy crack…
— The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association removes a high school basketball player’s senior year eligibility because she had a baby. Had she had an abortion, she likely would have played with no questions asked. The moralists are in a tizzy, do we reward or punish the promising athlete for keeping the baby….
A good sports documentary is often not about the sport it depicts. It’s about the lives of the athletes and coaches and the barriers they must surmount to reach their dreams. The examples above, from the films “When We Were Kings,” “Hoop Dreams,” and “The Heart of the Game,” used sports to illuminate much larger issues like race, poverty and abortion.
It’s smart to use sports. Sport is a common language. Most of us have suffered through the effort and training to master (or survive) a sport. Most of us have experienced the renewed hope of a new season - the hope that brightens the young faces of a team. Some of us have experienced the exaltation of exceeding expectations. Many more of us have muddled through middling seasons of mediocrity and worse.
This shared experience is a gate. The kids are identifiable now; they’re like me. Through that recognition, the rest of the athletes’ lives can be told. Their experiences and hardships become harder to dismiss. You may find yourself feeling something for the kids.
“Medora” is that kind of sports documentary.
Medora High School is home to a basketball team, the Medora Hornets. It is the smallest public school in Indiana with just 72 students. The Medora Hornets regularly lose to teams from much larger, consolidated, high schools with student bodies of 500 or more.
The Medora, Indiana, of 40 years ago was a classic example of small town America. As our nation’s production-based economy shifted to a management-based economy, butts shifted off the factory line and into chairs, strong backs withered, and the faceless winners moved to the unimaginable big city. The Medora of today, with the closing of its plastics plant and brick factory, is losing.
Yet despite derelict buildings and closed businesses, the town stubbornly remains; evaporated into sparse puddles of trailers in fallow fields and empty lots. There are just enough people to support one fantastic bowling alley.
The film tracks a number of players, but focuses on three.
Rusty is the son of an alcoholic mom. In the past, he dropped out of school to work while his mom was in rehab. He is able to go back to school because a friend’s mom lets him crash in their trailer. Despite, or because of, the hardship, Rusty is level headed and a leader.
Dylan is soulful and spends much of the film considering the priesthood. He has a weakness for young ladies whose names begin with ‘K’. Dylan’s story arc versus his absentee father provides a driving force of the film.
Robby’s a big guy. During a meeting with a technical school recruiter, Robby’s father - off camera - states, “Robby’s not a college type person.” Whether Robby’s father is a jerk, realistic, or both, gets somewhat resolved.
Moments of sweetness and levity hint at the town and team’s resilience. There is the new head coach and his bottomless well of patience. A police officer by day, he coaches one of the lousiest teams in the nation by night. Yet he can still manage to sincerely say, “I’ll never lose faith in you guys” in the locker room. The cheerleader coach’s patience exceeds that of the team coach. At one point, explaining why he encourages the cheerleaders, he says, “You don’t have to do big things, or great things, to be a person.”
The homecoming dance should bring back memories. The film juxtaposes the sweet awkwardness of dance with the sad turn a fun night can make once alcohol is consumed.
And there’s basketball too.
It’s a sports documentary after all, so there is a big game. As the team progresses, you might start to care for these kids more than you expect. Perhaps enhanced with your own big game memories, you may understand the look on those kids’ faces. The look. The look that expresses how, in that moment, in that game, in that town, that final throw, shot, goal, net, touchdown, field goal, punch, kick, ace, run … means everything.
“Medora” plays at the Gold Town Nickelodeon this Saturday and Sunday and next Tuesday, Nov. 12.
For details, visit www.goldtownnick.com.
• Clint J. Farr can be reached at email@example.com.