Documentary Review: Immigrants and sons of immigrants, as footballers — “The All-Americans”

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Every documentary is a gamble, a non-fiction film whose “story” is not scripted, but discovered right in front of the camera, created in real life in real time. And real life is full of surprises and disappointments, foiled plans and dashed dreams. Real life, as most of us know, rarely provides us with that “Hollywood ending” that the movies like to deliver.

The football documentary “The All-Americans,” is about “El Clasico,” the annual high school football rivalry between East L.A.’s two most promiment mostly-Latino high schools. Filmmaker Billy McMillin followed coaches, players and the families of Roosevelt High and Garfield High for nine months leading up to their seasonal grudge match.

It’s got a hyped Big Game, players figuring out their role in the drama, heroes in the making, planning for their future. Coaches extoll the “discipline,” “family,” “focus” and “commitment” that they’re teaching their kids.

And then the damned game itself is an anti-climactic bust. I dare say McMillin’s heart sank before halftime. But thank heavens that isn’t what the film is about.

McMillin’s movie is about inclusion, a tale of immigrants and sons of immigrants, girlfriends and relatives with “no papers,” kids disparaged for their race on Fox News and on local Los Angeles talk radio in thinly veiled racist code language, some of it not veiled at all.

These kids? They’re not playing “futbol,” or soccer. They’re suiting up for “futbol Americano,” working part time jobs after school, committing to each other to representing themselves, their school and their community.

They are and this place they come from, as Roosevelt High coach Alfred Robledo declares, “just as American as anywhere else in the country.” Like many a red-blooded American male, they’re all about those “Friday night lights.”

We see two different programs and two different philosophies or ways of “teaching” kids and giving them a better shot in life.

Javier Cid of Roosevelt keeps a “Training Scholar Athletes” sign on the door to his office. He takes great pride in his team’s 100% graduation rate, in the fact that a game once derided locally as “The Chili Bowl” has become a tradition and an 80-plus-years-and-running statement on Latino Americanism.

Garfield coach Lorenzo Hernandez coaches as a second job. He’s a local cop (we see him on a ride along) who talks about simpler goals, instilling the “discipline” for his kids to “not make the same mistakes I see out on the street every day.”

We meet players like Mario Ramirez, with a sparkling GPA and recruitment letters from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, living in a three bedroom house crammed with 14 people.

There’s Joseph Silva, a coiled knot of fury on the field whose father is in prison and his mother a junky on the streets, a kid who has been homeless, “living in vans,” but who finds focus as a Garfield linebacker. He works in a bakery before school. And he’s been a father since he was in the 10th grade.

Other kids are the sons of guys who played in this game, emphasizing the family and neighborhood ties that give El Clasico its larger meaning and import.

And then there’s Stevie Williams, the African American kid from South Central who takes city buses every day to go to a school where he’s the most singular of minorities, a black kid who doesn’t even speak the first language of the rest of the student body.

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McMillin’s film has wonderful fly-on-the-wall moments that will give you pause, an ex-con dad bragging about the tough love he used to instill his son with competitive fire, locker room tirades (by the kids) and foul-mouthed arguments between kids and the adults in charge on the sidelines.

One minute you think, “I’d want this coach molding my boy’s attitudes and direction in life,” the next you figure maybe the cop/coach has a better handle on that.

And then you remember, “You’ve got to be a freak of nature size-wise” to played the game, and concussions and dislocations, etc., come with the sport. Maybe soccer and tennis?

Like the coaches, the viewer can embrace this or that boy’s story, but only at our own peril. Kids aren’t predictable, and they’ll let you and themselves down — on the field, and off.

But that messiness and disappointment is a part of the charm of “The All-Americans.” It’s not about the game, or even “how they played the game.” It’s how the game shapes who they are or will become, for good or ill.

And that means the “Big Game Finale” has just as much impact, meaning and resonance when it’s a blowout as when events on the field contrive to give us “the Hollywood ending.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, football violence, profanity

Cast: Mario Ramirez, Joseph Silva, Sammy Hernandez, Javier Cid, Lorenzo Hernandez, Stevie Williams and Alfred Robledo

Credits: Written and directed by Billy McMillan. An Abramorama release.

Running time:  1:38

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