Small victories — indeed, victories of any sort — are all the more welcome for being so rare in “Medora,” a bleakly potent portrait of life in an economically devastated Middle American town. While focusing on the community’s chronically winless high school basketball team — whose players, like many grown-ups in town, have begun to accept defeat as a natural state of being — filmmakers Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart uncover and illuminate a strain of stoic resilience that could be the last best defense against bottomless despair. Unfortunately, as “Medora” repeatedly suggests, that invaluable resource may not be inexhaustible.
Home-screen platforms are the natural habitat for this well-crafted and handsomely lensed documentary. But don’t discount the possibility of a respectable performance in limited theatrical play, especially if both sportswriters and progressive political pundits can be enlisted in the publicity campaign.
Cohn and Rothbart evince equal measures of tactful restraint and empathetic curiosity as they tour Medora, Ind., a crumbling hamlet where the factories have shut down, Main Street is a string of shuttered stores, and the high-school basketball coach — who also works as a local cop — has a hard time convincing himself, much less his team, that the losing streak will ever end.
The young players dutifully show up for practice and struggle through what promises to be yet another a lost-cause season — primarily, it seems, because they have nothing better to do, and no one but their teammates to hang out with. But they are distracted by off-court concerns (one young man can’t decide whether to contact the father he’s never met; another anxiously expects his recovering alcoholic mom to backslide) and hard-pressed to choose among dwindling options available to them after graduation. (It’s worth noting that the only person of color whose presence is felt throughout the entire film is President Obama, whose televised comments about economic hardship in once-vital communities resonate with the Medora citizenry.)
The mood is so grim during much of “Medora” that the audience is primed to appreciate anything that resembles comic relief. The sad-eyed, middle-aged fellow who serves as Medora High’s cheerleader coach likely is utterly sincere when he explains his life philosophy (“You make the best of it, and you keep going!”), but in this context, his earnest optimism comes off as borderline hilarious. And it’s very difficult not to laugh out loud when, asked by one of the filmmakers to describe Medora, a storeowner bluntly quips: “Closed.”
You can’t help suspecting that the co-directors and their crew heaved a collective sigh of relief when, near the end of their visit, a few good things finally happened to some of the people they spent so much time with. And even if they didn’t: That’s how viewers are bound to respond as “Medora” draws to a melancholy but largely satisfying conclusion.