Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Suzannah Herbert/Lauren Belfer's WRESTLE is a riveting, heartfelt teen sports documentary

The best documentary about high school sports competitions TrustMovies has seen since the Oscar-winning Undefeated (from 2011), WRESTLE, the new film directed by Suzannah Herbert, co-directed by Lauren Belfer, and co-written by both of them, along with Pablo Proenza, has been compared to the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams but strikes me as much closer in form, spirit and running-time to Undefeated.

So richly, quietly and thoroughly does the filmmaking team manage to embed you in the lives, needs, problems and desires of its quartet of high school wrestlers, by the time you leave this modest but hugely compelling little movie, you may feel that these four  young men and their wonderful wrestling coach have become part of your own family.

This is because Ms Herbert, shown at right, and Ms Belfer (below), along with Mr. Proenza (shown two photos below), who did the ace editing on the film,
became so close to their wrestlers, their families and and the team's coach that they were able to obtain footage in which emotions are real and often quite raw; humor is plentiful, too; then all of this has been edited so that what we see slowly grows into characters who are so much more than mere wrestlers. We view their young lives, as well as those of their family, friends and -- in one case, paramor -- as fraught, tentative yet hopeful.

Wrestle, finally, is about much more than merely winning the game,
though the suspense and hope registered along this route, is terrific, too.

In addition to some interesting wrestling -- we see enough of the game to begin to appreciate the moves of the team members that lead to their wins or losses -- we also view the boys' love for family, coach and each other.

Three of the team members are black (Jaquan, Jamario and Jailen) and one white (Teague), and as the film takes place in Huntsville, Alabama, at J.O. Johnson High School, which had been on the state's list of "failing schools" for years, we also note the local cops' interactions with two of the (surprise, surprise!) black team members. Race seems less of a problem among the team mates than in society at large. (The movie's sweetest, most tender moment comes as Teague places his head on Jaquan's shoulder.)

The co-directors actually lived in Huntsville full-time while filming, and this must in part account for the enormous intimacy achieved here, as well as for the filmmakers' ability to be in the right place at the right time so often.

The four boys are wonderfully diverse; we root for them all, including their coach. And, yes, he's white, but I hope we don't have to hear any more bullshit about why we should not show a white man helping poor, deprived black kids. (For anyone who insists upon that, may I recommend you read this splendid and appropriate article, The Trouble With Uplift by Adolf Reed from that great progressive magazine, The Baffler.) Who wins and who loses will surprise and move you. And the final end-credit notes regarding Where are they now? will do the same.

In terms of intimacy and accomplishment, Wrestle is also on a part with 2017's wonderful documentary, Night School. And though we learn the usual things we'd expect from a documentary about a team hoping to win a championship, the filmmakers seem to deliberately stop short of providing any kind of actual "happy ending."

The lives of these boys have barely begun, yet already, the challenges ahead seem massive. This movie will entertain you, sure, but it will also make you think and feel and care and, yes, wrestle with the idea of what America was and is and could be. I mean, really: what more could you ask from a movie today? Oh, right: explosions, car chases and lots of special effects.

From Oscilloscope Films and running 96 minutes, Wrestle opens this Friday, February 22, in New York City at the Village East Cinema, and on Friday, March 1, in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center. I can't find any other between-the-coasts screenings listed on the film's web site, but perhaps once the rave reviews and great world-of-mouth appear after opening, we'll see more availability around the rest of the country. Hope so!

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