Thursday, May 2, 2019

Movie Review: Wrestle

Wrestle **** / *****
Directed by: Suzannah Herbert & Lauren Belfer.
Written by: Lauren Belfer & Suzannah Herbert & Pablo Proenza.
On the surface, Wreslte is another one of those inspirational sports documentaries that have been made continuously over the past few decades ever since Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994) kind of redefined the genre in a brilliant way. Wrestle doesn’t quite reach those heights – and yet, it is more clear eyed in its depiction of a wrestling team at a poor school in the poor city of Huntsville, Alabama over the course of a single wrestling season. These are people in the heart of Trump’s America, but they are the type of people that no one – certainly not Trump – pays all that much attention to. It focuses on four high school boys – three black, one white – all of whom have issues bigger than wrestling, and their white coach from New York, who had some same issues a decade ago when he was a teenager, and is now trying to help them navigate them. The results are mixed.
The coach is Chris Scribner, who had issues with drugs and alcohol when he was a teenager, and was told that trying to start a wrestling program at this school – J.O. Johnson in Huntsville – would be a failure. But the wrestling program has gone pretty good so far. He has some talented kids on his team – ones that have a chance to go to State. The film focuses on four of them. Jamario Rowe is a bit of a hothead who doesn’t always do what is supposed to do. He is an emotional kid – he has a white girlfriend, who is pregnant – and their relationship is drama filled to say the least. His mother wants to support him – but knows he’s going to do what he’s going to do. Jaquan Rhodes is bigger and quieter than Jamario – again has a supportive mother, no father in the picture. He’s also a little lazier. He struggles to make weight, and can be as definitive as Jamario, but in a quieter way. Teague Berres is the one white kid the film focuses on. He may has ADD or something similar – he certainly has trouble staying focused and committed – and all the pot he smokes certainly doesn’t help. The kid who seems to have it most together is Jailen Young – being raised by his grandparents, after he mother walked out on the family. He is smarter than the others, and more committed. He has a plan – and while he has some of the other complaints as the others, he isn’t as easily dissuaded.
The film was directed by Suzannah Herbert, and co-director Lauren Belfer, and they stay out of the way. You don’t hear from them as they follow the kids or the coach, who seem to have become comfortable enough around the cameras that they basically ignore them. The film addresses a lot of issues – bias in policing for example, without beating you over the head with it. Jaquan ends up with a criminal record because of a small amount of pot found in his car. Jailen is harassed by a white cop for public urination, who is way too into harassing this kid. Meanwhile Teague seems to be able to smoke all the pot he wants, and no one notices (not to mention, he pulls a scam that could easily be described as theft, again with no consequences).
The film follows the four wrestlers as they try to make the top 8 in their weight class for the state, to make the finals. They know if they do well there, then a wrestling scholarship maybe in their future. With that, they can go to college. Without it, they probably will never get there. Coach Chris, seems to be focused on that – getting them to their potential. He doesn’t seem to quite understand everything they are going through – the black kids hint at this, but never quite say it. Scribner seems to realize this, but lets it pass.
The movie climaxes at the state championships, where all four of them are competing. Not everything goes as planned however – and in the end, we are left with what is probably the more realistic ending than we normally see. Things are not going to turn out well for all the students – or the school or the coach.
Wrestle is a very good documentary – one that doesn’t beat you over the head with what it has to say, but says it loudly and clearly just the same. Yes, it’s about wrestling – but it’s about more than that as well.

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