There’s a rigid formula for coming-of-age documentaries.
Pick a group of disadvantaged schoolkids — dancers or mathematicians, athletes or children just desperate to be selected for the top magnet school in the region, ensuring that college is in their future — and follow them as they battle long odds, family shortcomings, the system and themselves.
Some will succeed, and even in the most “feel good” documentaries in this genre, some will fail.
“Wrestle” is a formula coming-of-age documentary featuring high school wrestlers, their fanatically-committed coach, their families, disadvantages and distractions as they try to gain fame and scholarships from the platform of a failing Huntsville, Alabama high school.
It’s a revealing film that doesn’t skimp on the pitfalls facing the four young men who are its subjects and the blind spots of the white coach who pushes, inspires and badgers them through a long, grueling season.
But the jaw-dropping revelation here is in filmmakers’ Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer realizing, and making us realize, that black or white, seniors or underclassmen, raised by Mom or raised by grandparents, these are lives with zero margin for error.
Of course we’re shown arduous workouts, teammates carrying each other up a hill, at night, in the rain, urged on by their fellow wrestlers.
We get a dose of what it takes to “make weight” when you’re a tall, growing kid who likes to eat.
We get a glimpse of J.O. Johnson High School, stuck in a comatose, opportunity-starved corner of Huntsville.
But the camera crew is in the car when easily-distracted underclassman Jaquan drives his buddy, senior Jamario, to his birthday party and the older teen talks about want to smoke (weed) “just tonight,” and not again this season.
The tape is still rolling as Jaquan, later that night, is pulled over by Huntville’s finest for a “dim brake light.” A “trace” of marijuana later, and his mother is praying aloud as she drives to get him out of jail, to calm herself down and “not do nothing to jeopardize my freedom.”
That’s what being black in Huntsville is like.
The smart, well-spoken star of the team, Jailen Young relieves himself on a roadside in even-less-tolerant Montgomery and faces police hassle and arrest.
“Don’t get smart” turns into “Lose the attitude…you’bout this close” and then to the cop snapping at the documentary crew about he hopes the filmmakers captured “how disrespectful this young man is being.”
They did. And they captured the fact that these are good kids whose lives are under a police spotlight every night they’re out of doors, with no chance of “let you off with a warning” from the white cops they confront.
“Scrib” (Chris Scribner), their coach, shakes his head at the fact that he “made a lot of the same choices they did (drug abuse, almost flunking out)…But I was given a LOT of chances. I don’t know how that’s fair.”
Teague, a white 145 pounder on the team, has attention deficit issues and medications to combat that, medications he doesn’t take. We watch him utterly bollix his future — skipping class, buying weed, scrambling up trees and gym walls and improvising his way around the mat with the same manic energy.
“Teague, that wasn’t even a MOVE.”
His mother wishes he’d get busted “to wake him up.” She begins each day’s drop off at school with a “No crazy stuff today. I don’t need no phone calls.”
Jamario, the senior, could be the J.O. Johnson wrestler who wins it all. But he’s overwhelmed by expectations, mood-swings and distractions. He’s got an older girlfriend who wants to sit in on practices (not allowed) and doesn’t see herself as part of the problem.
“That girl ain’t nothing but drama,” his mother, Lolita, warns, but Jamario isn’t big on listening or following advice.
“Wrestle,” better than most sports documentaries or feature dramas, gets at the grueling, attention-sapping nature of high school sports. The season goes on and on, kids have classes and other things to change their focus.
Kids, with little perspective on how long life is, get burned-out or mess up in other ways.
Scrib is an in-their-lives/in-their-business coach, ridiculed by trying to be too much — their shrink, their life coach, their dad.
The kids laugh off his cussing, cajoling, mothering (he tracks down athletes late for matches, skipping practice) and even violently wrestling them (almost certainly not allowed outside of Alabama) with “He’s from New York. Coaxing “role model” Jailen into giving a speech to one of the team’s sponsors, Coach is “fittin'” (his words) to get worked up.
“You know what I’m sayin’? Be FORCEFUL. Be Obama about it!”
“Wrestle” may be a formulaic genre picture, but Herbert and Belfer find lighter moments (Jaquon dozing off on the exercycle), a coach taking on Southern African American patois, an irate mother demanding “Did you SMOKE in my baby’s car, Jamario?”
And the filmmakers absolutely NAIL the straight-and-narrow that these kids must follow just to “make it to 18,” the police attention that gives so many African American youth the sort of “zero tolerance” futures circumscribed by having “criminal” records.
Even kids with someone as hellbent on giving them “First in your family to go to college” ambitions and dreams as Coach Scrib can be pinned before the match even starts.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast:Teague Berres, Jaquan Rhodes, Chris Scribner, Jamario Rowe
Credits: Directed by Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer. An Oscilloscope Labs release.
Running time: 1:36