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“Wrestle” Is An Engrossing Documentary About Poverty, Sports, And More

In 1994, a documentary called Hoop Dreams set the standard by which almost all sports related documentaries set in High School. The way Steve James captured the hopes of student athletes who saw basketball as a way out of their poverty stricken existence was uncanny. Now, this week brings another doc that can boast the same thing. It’s Wrestle, a look a the same sort of teenager. Athletics play a prominent role here, but as much as anything it’s a depiction of low income life in the American south. This world often seems forgotten, but this movie shines a fascinating light on it all.

The film is a documentary about a High School wrestling team, as well as the poverty that surrounds them. Set in Huntsville, Alabama, it follows a group of students at J.O. Johnson High School who see potentially their only hope for the future resting on scoring a hard earned wrestling scholarship. We follow a quartet of wrestlers as they compete and train with an eye towards the state championships, all under the guide of a dedicated coach in 28 year old Chris Scribner, who also teaches civics at the school. The students are Jamario, Jailen, Jaquan, and Teague. The latter two have behavior issues tripping them up, while Jamario has real life stresses impinging on his performance. The decisions that the quartet make and what the consequences of those actions are make up one of the main subplots here, besides the drive towards the state championships. Both sides are equally compelling. Suzannah Herbert directs, while Lauren Belfer is credited as co-director. Both co-write the doc with Pablo Proenza, who edits as well. The cinematography is handled by Sinisa Kukic, while the score is courtesy of Graham Edward Lebron and David Wingo.

I was very fond of this doc. The movie really puts you right there with the student athletes. It presents a world where sports may present an escape, all while the specter of poverty hangs over everything. The doc is absolutely engrossing. Belfer and Herbert just set the camera up and let real life unfold. The result is that very few things end up happening as you’d expect them to. It’s not quite the opposite of what the fictional version would depict, but it’s close. More importantly though, it’s what really happened. You feel for Jamario and his pressure. You understand the frustrations that Coach Scribner feels. It all just works.

Depending on how the year shakes out, Wrestle has a chance to be remembered at the end of 2019 when awards season kicks into gear. If nothing else, it seems like something that the Academy would short-list as the precursors are going on. It has a unique conceit, it’s about an issue, and will remind voters of one of their worst snubs ever. Anyone who regrets not getting Hoop Dreams into the field may want to go for this and right that wrong. It’s way too early to figure Best Documentary Feature out, obviously, but my year in advance predictions may well include it in the race.

This weekend, audiences can see a superior documentary when Wrestle opens. As an added bonus, those of you based in New York City can see me moderate a post screening Q&A with the filmmakers after the 7pm showtime at the Village East Cinemas. It should be a really fascinating chat. Regardless of that, this is a doc to seek out. The verisimilitude is terrific. Hoop Dreams truly has a spiritual sequel here. If you’re at all interested in wrestling, this will intrigue you, but it’s about much more than just that. Give the film a look and you’ll see what I mean…

Be sure to check out Wrestle, in theaters this Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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