“Pelada” presents pick-up soccer as a universal passion, showing how the sport manages to transcend political and cultural barriers through an uplifting international survey of everywhere the game is played — from the confines of a Bolivian prison to the rooftop court of a Tokyo skyscraper. Armed with compact HD cameras, filmmakers Rebekah Fergusson and Ryan White follow former college athletes (and co-helmers) Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham to far-flung corners of the world with little in common except the locals’ love for “football” — but even that won’t be necessary for auds to connect with this all-around inspiring doc, especially abroad.
To get a sense of “Pelada’s” unique motivational quality, take the gut feeling a killer Nike commercial can evoke and imagine riding that high for 90 minutes. And yet the film is a curiosity among docs in that it’s a story without conflict, capped with a lesson about knowing when to quit. Unlike similar projects, “Pelada” doesn’t cast its characters against one another or build to a climactic match; nor do former Notre Dame soccer stars Boughen and Oxenham set out with an evangelical or heal-the-world agenda.
The two simply want to investigate every permutation of the game, attempting to join in and play wherever possible, and though they sometimes put themselves in perilous situations to do so, “Pelada” never tries to exploit that tension. If anything, the four-person filmmaking team downplays the danger of, say, wandering through a Buenos Aires slum or flouting Iranian law for Oxenham to join a guys-only game in Tehran.
The directors seem constantly astonished to find amateur soccer as widespread as it is, from matches contested by the llama-herding women of the Andes mountains to a firemen-vs.-paramedics game unfolding behind the EuroCup.
In editing, the filmmakers condense a trip that might have supported an entire cable series (say, an episode per city or continent) into an inviting vicarious experience. Culling from countless hours of footage, they choose their B-roll well, perfectly timing poignant moments to trigger an understanding smile: a one-legged man playing on crutches, a lively game uninterrupted by a stray chicken, African boys fashioning plastic bags into their own small ball.
Just as important are the backgrounds of each scene, framed broadly enough to comment on far more than just soccer (whether it’s Green Point Stadium rising above the Cape Town skyline or passersby reacting to an American camera crew in Iran). Crisp, colorful lensing aside, pic’s tone is set by a combination of score and script. Music selections from indie artists such as Nico Stai, Nick Ogawa and L’elan Vital give the film the infectiously upbeat energy it needs to prevent the round-the-world venture from growing monotonous.
Creative writing grad Oxenham supplies a Reader’s Digest-style narration rife with flowery cliches and feel-good conclusions that she and Luke deliver in the uncertain cadence of a “how I spent my summer vacation” presentation. They sound awkward but sincere, giving a glass-half-full approach to the entire experience — especially refreshing in light of how easily “Pelada” could have turned into a humanitarian downer. Those films have their place, but this one resolutely aims to spotlight the positive side of a shared human experience.