With comparisons to Steve James’ excellent “Hoop Dreams” inevitable, Todd Lubin’s “Year of the Bull” documents a year in the life of the football program at Miami Northwestern High School. Honing in on team captain Taurean Charles, who has a million-dollar smile and prospects for playing pro-ball, this “Gridiron Dreams,” though painted on a smaller canvas, is rich in the same unfettered observations about high school athletics and the unexpected import they can carry. “Year of the Bull” should have a bright future as a first-round festival draft pick and, with critical backing, a “Hoop Dreams”-style theatrical berth as well.
Like many of the best documentaries, “Year of the Bull” is a confluence of many happy accidents and a filmmaker skillful enough to anticipate them. Director Lubin formerly worked for Michael Mann and stumbled upon Charles and Miami Northwestern while working on the Florida-lensed sections of “Ali” in 2001. Lubin sensed a story and a movie, not just about Charles, but about the surrounding community of Liberty City — a mere stone’s throw from trendy South Beach, but an ocean apart in terms of the average standard of living. Fortunately for all its empathy, “Year of the Bull” never turns maudlin, never asks its aud to pity the characters.
“Year of the Bull” has a vivid sense of place and of family, particularly in its moving depiction of the bond between Charles and his widowed mother. Their relationship and the game of football provide inherent drama for Lubin. But the movie doesn’t rely on a conventional “big game” sports movie structure to succeed; here, Charles’ slowly improving test scores are more important (and keep auds closer to the edge of their seats) than his rushing yardage.
Football means “everything” to the denizens of Liberty City, “Year of the Bull” frequently reminds; and it comes as no surprise, given that no fewer than 19 NFL players have emerged from the ranks of Miami Northwestern’s graduating classes. However, the point of Lubin’s film is that football isn’t the sole key to improving one’s own character and position in life. In order to “win,” Charles must triumph in the academic arena as well as the athletic one. And he’ll need to do it without letting his ever-burgeoning ego get the better of him. That’s a valuable lesson for Charles and for viewers alike in this era of unparalleled emphasis being placed on amateur athletic abilities from the earliest possible ages, and it’s what gives “Year of the Bull” its special resonance.