The sports doc can be a dogpile of cliches and conventions, and in defying most of them, helmer Eugene Martin makes “The Anderson Monarchs” one of the more memorable and refreshing entries in the very genre it’s busy bending like Beckham. The story of an all African-American South Philadelphia girls’ soccer team, the pic strives for tone, mood and emotion rather than making a sales pitch about its subjects. Marketing will be tough, but finding it a prominent slot wouldn’t be the worst decision “POV” ever made. Festival play should be robust as well.
The film compares more than favorably with last year’s Oscar-winning docu “Undefeated,” and comparisons will be inevitable. The Monarchs — based in crime-ridden South Philly, and named for pioneering opera star Marian Anderson — are a black team with a white coach, Walter Stewart. They practice on scrubby city fields that seem mostly devoid of vegetation. Their rivals are not only better equipped, but generally don’t have to deal with having their practices interrupted by, say, a shooting on an adjacent basketball court. Yet despite its disadvantages, the team thrives, not just athletically, but socially. In 2008, a writer for Sports Illustrated suggested they get the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year award, and made a pretty substantial case.
But what sounds like a standard setup for an inspirational, cue-the-trumpet-fanfare underdog story is given a largely different spin. Buoyed by a terrific and memorable theme by composer Mario Grigorov, “The Anderson Monarchs” eschews the predictable tactic of alternating talking heads with sports footage, instead mixing the two seamlessly (the editing by Martin and producer Ed Givnish is creatively fluid), while the voices of the girls, or in some cases their very supportive mothers, are heard against the game scenes and shots of Philadelphia.
The filmmakers aren’t afraid to go their own way. One particular sequence is unexpected yet perfectly apt: a series of portraits of the different girls wearing their uniforms and a variety of expressions. It’s the kind of introduction-to-the-characters sequence that would nominally come at the beginning; here, it arrives about midway through, after the viewer has gotten to know who’s who, what’s what, and just how much is at stake. The sequence contributes enormously to the movie’s mood, which is both urgent and warm.
Martin neither avoids nor particularly dwells on race. Significantly, however, the girls do, and so does Stewart, an enormously likable, matter-of-fact guy who, to his credit, doesn’t seem to want to be in a movie. His motives for coaching a group of kids who aren’t “his” would be the elephant in the room if the relentless Martin hadn’t gotten Stewart to address it head-on: Divorced from his wife and estranged from their children, the coach admits quite frankly, if reluctantly, that the Monarchs fill a hole in his life. “You ask tough questions,” he tells Martin, whose journalistic doggedness takes the movie to a higher level.
The storyline doesn’t include the kid of climactic/predictable competition that would provide the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat or an easy out for the filmmaker. The team goes to a national playoff in Disney World (the players have to raise the fund themselves, of course), but Martin doesn’t tie a bow around a story that’s really about ongoing struggle. At the same time, he leaves the viewer with a good feeling — for the girls, Stewart and the film itself.
Tech credits are tops, particularly Jen Schneider’s lensing, which bestows a gritty grandeur on South Philly.