A smaller-scaled examination of sportive influence on already-hard-knocked young lives in the mode of “Hoop Dreams” and “Friday Night Lives,” “Wrestle” trains its gaze on an underdog high school’s grappling team over one eventful season’s course. Suzannah Herbert and co-director Lauren Belfer’s documentary spends at least as much time on the protagonists’ stormy personal lives as it does on their athletic training and competition. Their disparate struggles remind that the “land of opportunity” is no level playing field: Those from broken homes and poorer communities with underfunded educational systems face a much steeper climb than the more fortunate. This engrossing snapshot has a good shot at exposure beyond the festival circuit, with public television being a logical destination.
Huntsville is a city in north Alabama (and the south end of the Appalachians) whose public schools suffer from statewide problems with low test scores and graduation rates. One school on the “failing” list is J.O. Johnson High School, the first in its area built as a racially integrated institution. Though discouraged at first, young Social Studies teacher Chris Scribner forms a wrestling team that in its third year has recruited and trained successfully enough to have a shot at the state championships.
At least that’s the goal. Scribner is up against a lot of conflict in the lives of some of his team members. Amiable goofball Teague, who cheerfully admits, “I’m on four meds, but I don’t take them,” has trouble staying focused — and not getting high. Wiry Jailen hasn’t seen his mother (who now has a new, second family) since he was two. Brawny, dreadlocked senior Jamario looks like a confident winner but becomes easily stressed, even more so after the girlfriend he’s been inseparable since age 13 becomes pregnant. Jaquan’s attempts to do the right thing are imperiled when he’s pulled over for a broken brake light — and the cop’s on-camera, over-the-top hostility can’t help but reinforce the notion that law enforcement personnel in this country really do treat people differently according to race.
All these young men have major chips on their shoulders from abandoning, incarcerated, or otherwise absent parents. Sometimes their entire environment seems to be betting on their failure. If Jamario graduates high school (let alone goes to college), he’ll be the first person in his family ever to do so. Coach Scribner, who admits he fell into many of the same formative behavioral traps despite a less-handicapped background, is not-infrequently resented as a hard-driving taskmaster. He’s unafraid to go far beyond the call of duty, rousting students from their beds and haranguing them for laziness. But they need the structure, the team support, and the genuine if “tough” quasi-paternal love he provides.
Its pacey progress occasionally hustled along by editor Pablo Proenza’s expert time-crunching montages, “Wrestle” finally does make it to the state championships. There, as throughout, the results are unpredictably mixed for our protagonists — this isn’t the kind of movie that feels obligated to deliver a feel-good, inspirational wrap-up. Suspenseful as the actual matches are, there’s more tension in worrying just how intact these near-adults will make it to the even bigger stakes of post-high-school life, or whether they’ll be hobbled before they even leave the gate.
The filmmakers’ assembly is professional without being over-polished, from DP Sinisa Kukic’s above-average lensing to a soundtrack that makes good use of soulful oldies by the likes of Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers. Despite being a warts-and-all portrait, Herbert and Belfer’s film is suffused with an unsentimental empathy for primarily African-American subjects who immediately transcend any “thug” stereotype. They are trying to succeed, but no one is making that easy for them. Amidst various textual epilogues, there is one very sad coda about the fate of J.O. Johnson itself, reinforcing the current political trend of punishing under-performing schools in impoverished communities rather than taking the trouble to invest in their improvement.