Kicking the Tweets
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Medora (2013)

One Grain of Sand

Here's how much I dislike sports: the only time I've ever been ejected from a movie theatre was in 1986, during a screening of Hoosiers. I don't remember if the repetitive basketball footage, or the boring drama between punk kids, a cranky old man, and the town drunk made me snap, but I began rocking from side to side in my seat. My protests grew louder and louder, until everyone else in the theatre had a new favorite enemy. As I recall, my parents didn't get to finish David Anspaugh's classic until it surfaced on home video sometime later, because they'd smartly, regretfully, dragged their bawling nine-year-old son out to the car instead.

I mention this because I've heard Medora compared to Hoosiers. True, Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart's film is about a small town Indiana basketball team struggling to win a single game amidst all manner of external conflict--but it's also a documentary, which gives it more narrative and emotional heft than any screenplay might deliver. The best thing is, it's not only accessible to film nerds like me who wouldn't know a full-court press from a bench press, it's downright thrilling.

As you might expect, the filmmakers profile a handful of players on the Medora High School Hornets, all of whom have unique and troubling stories to tell. Dylan McSoley aspires to be a preacher, in an effort to replace the loving father who abandoned his family. Robby Armstrong wants to be the first member of his family to go to college, despite a disability and lack of clear direction. Rusty Rogers grapples with an alcoholic mother, and temporarily avoids homelessness by bunking with teammate Zack Fish. Then there's bad-boy Chaz Cowles, who looks like a young Norman Reedus, and seems to have modeled a life on that actor's rebellious, detached Walking Dead character.

While these vignettes and others give Medora its structure, they are merely key frames in a richer, darker story. Like the Detroit of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, the filmmakers set out to paint a sharp contrast between a once booming, happy industry town and the rusted husk that barely remains today. Unlike that movie, Cohn and Rothbart give the audience animated statistics and testimonials straight--no cheesy cartoon characters here; only chilling figures regarding the national movement to consolidate schools and the struggle of small-town learning institutions to remain independent.

Indeed, one of the main reasons the Hornets haven't won a game (not a tournament, a game) in decades is because their seventy-two-member student body doesn't have nearly the pool of recruitable male talent as their competitors--who often have populations three to five to seven times that size. Comprised of players who often show up to games resigned to lose, it's a wonder coach (and full-time cop) Justin Gilbert doesn't throw in the towel after every defeat.

Despite being beaten by teams that should be handily defeated; despite run-ins with the law; and despite watching doubtfully as President Obama feels Medora's collective pain during a State of the Union Address, the team--and the community--presses on. The cheerleading squad shows up every day and to rally and paint signs and hand-craft paper-jersey decorations. The home-game bleachers still swell with hopeful spectators, who hang on like gamblers awaiting the next "lucky" pull. In short, the team finds solace in the game and in each other, instead of giving in to the temptation of never even trying to amount to something.

Even if you don't go into Medora craving hard-hitting social commentary (which I doubt will be the case when you walk out), the film also works as an exceptional sports movie. Rachael Counce's sharp action footage, as edited by Cohn, Vanessa Roworth, and Mary Manhardt, and scored by Bobby Emmett and Patrick Keeler, should be the required method of presenting all athletic competitions. They are masters at building up hope and momentum, and yanking the rug right out from under the audience. This is such rich, rich material, I'd almost bet my film-reviewing career that you'll need several tissues, a hug, and a morphine drip by the time the Hornets meet their collective fate.

As documentaries go, 2013 has been an embarrassment of riches, and Medora stands out as one of the best. Its stellar execution is notable, but its boldness in giving us unabashed heart as well as a handful of uncomfortable truths to take home make it exceptional. Yeah, I cried during this basketball movie, too, but for the right reasons this time.

Though Medora has not yet received a major national release, the filmmakers are currently touring it (Chicagoans can catch a one-time screening and Q&A tonight at The Music Box). For scheduling and other information, check out the movie's Facebook page. You can also rent or purchase Medora on iTunes and Vimeo.

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