The studio pitch for the documentary “Wrestle” might have been “’Hoop Dreams’ on a wrestling mat.” It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale of one young coach’s attempt to grow boys into men via the discipline of competition grappling, and a blistering depiction of failing public high schools in America.
The outstanding take-away from 1994’s “Hoop Dreams,” which chronicled the embryonic basketball careers of a few highly talented, up-and-coming high-school ballers, was that it demonstrated the absolutely insane amount of talent, hard work, and sheer luck it takes to get into the NBA.
We American hoop-fan couch potatoes tend to take the NBA kings—the M.J.s and the LeBrons—for granted. “Hoop Dreams” smashed all that. But the ridiculous, “Oh, they’re just talented” outlook nonetheless continues to run rampant in the USA. “Wrestle” is another good reminder about talent, hard work, and luck.
Friday Night Lights
It was Buzz Bissinger’s book, “Friday Night Lights,” the resulting TV series, and the movie by the same title that started this documentary trend, which is also now the go-to format for how the Olympics and Super Bowl are presented: Get to know the players’ and their families’ life stories. Then you care about them. You’ll be invested in the outcomes of their lives. The drama is heightened; we pay more attention. We really want them to win. It’s basically new, improved storytelling.
High school is also one of America’s favorite things. It’s the time of the great sorting. Just like in “Harry Potter”: Are you a Slytherin or a Ravenclaw? Are you a nerd, jock, stoner, or mean girl? It’s the time of the prom. It’s the time of the class president, the class valedictorian, the captain of the football team, and the head cheerleader. These are the American archetypes of when everything is new, exciting, euphoric, and excruciating.
And so the directing team of Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer picked four underdog high school grapplers and followed them around for an athletic season, documenting their lives. It’s a powerful, moving group portrait.
Like the Permian Panthers football team of “Friday Night Lights,” the J.O. Johnson Jaguars of Huntsville, in northern Alabama, is another team with a big-cat mascot. Except the Panthers captured our collective imaginations because, while their footballers weren’t physically big, that area of Texas is known for its toughness.
These young wrestlers from Huntsville are truer underdogs in the sense that that level of Midland, Texas, toughness is not part of the landscape in Alabama. Huntsville is situated at the base of the southern Appalachians, and these boys have nary a father in sight, between the four of them.
Which makes the role of 28-year-old head wrestling coach (and social studies teacher) Chris Scribner all the more heroic. He’s basically the Caucasian dad to these (mostly) African-American teens, and in this—the third year after he established the wrestling program—the Jags have already qualified to go to state. As we all know, “going to state” is a phrase as grounded in Americana as apple pie—our particular early harbinger of greatness.
Scribner’s mentoring, guiding, and coaching is mostly a thankless job: Like all teens, the boys ruthlessly rag on their coach. He’s trying to be their coach, psychologist, dad, teacher, chauffeur, cop, truancy/parole officer, and, according to Jailen Young, “grammar Nazi.”
He’s game, though. Scribner is tough, and at one point compares himself to Teague, the sole Caucasian boy of the group. Like Teague, Scribner also had a serious addiction problem in high school, and has, as a result, instituted the Alcoholics Anonymous “Serenity Prayer” in the team huddles.
At one point, tough love results in a coach-student lawn grapple. Muscled-up, dreadlocked senior Jamario Rowe’s got a baby on the way, no post-high-school prospects, and resides in a constant state of psychic anguish. Which of course manifests as mouthing off, hostility, and insubordination.
Coach Scribner sets a strong but compassionate boundary for him, refuses to let him walk away, and in the ensuing tussle, out-grapples Jamario but holds him gently as a fragile egg, all while taking elbows to the face, and ultimately comforts the boy’s tortured soul. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Stacked Against Them
Alabama’s public schools suffer from endemic deadbeat dad and welfare mom situations, resulting in low high-school test scores and graduation rates for their offspring.
Throw in some endemic, Deep South racism, aptly depicted here by a hostile white cop itching to jail young Jailen Young for a dimmed taillight (and the black boys admitting it’s a common occurrence), and coach Scribner, knowing how hard he himself had it coming up, has to admit he didn’t face the full array of hardships that await the average young African-American male. Jailen, raised by his grandfather, hasn’t seen his mom since he was 2.
Jaquan Rhodes gets pulled over as well, and a trace amount of weed in the car puts his entire, fragile life immediately in jeopardy.
Teague Berres’s psychic battle is no less intense, however. He’s on four different medications for ADHD (which he doesn’t take because they affect his wrestling); he’s got the above-mentioned highly addictive personality, and smokes whatever he can get his hands on. His mom wishes he’d get arrested to knock some sense into his head.
One of the most powerful scenes is when the assistant coach crowds the team into a hallway and informs them that Teague just got caught going door-to-door, posing as a charity worker, taking donations, and then running off and spending it on marijuana. The boys harangue Teague: “That’s just evil!” And then, seeing the anguish on his face, they group hug. Nobody here is a thug, but it’s not easy in this neighborhood. And they all know it, all too well.
Got to State
The Jags eventually do make it to the state championships. However, this is a documentary and not a Hollywood happy ending—not all our boys do well, and that’s tragic.
What was most interesting to me, though, is that I believe all these boys are equally matched talent-wise, athletically. Teague appears the least talented, but he also smokes too much, and only has Big Pharma looking after his mental condition, which I think is one of the greatest current crimes perpetrated upon America’s youth. Jamario’s a brick house, but his mind is weakened from a myriad of psychological pressures.
Of all of them, Jailen’s got the most positive outlook and confidence, backing his tremendous grappling talent—and wins the opportunity to climb out of his social crab-bucket.
The saddest part of the movie is that J.O. Johnson High School, long on the federal list of failing schools, was shut down in 2016 and turned into a training facility for local law enforcement.
Actually, that’s not the saddest part: Jamario’s girlfriend Samara gives birth, by herself, in the hospital while he’s at graduation. And he ends up leaving her. What high school will their child attend now, if she even makes it past our now endemic meth and opioid epidemics?
What with America’s ravenous appetite for mixed martial arts competition in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, I think this film would have a big audience if it opened wide. The wrestling is electrifying, even if the shots are too fleeting.
It’s quite striking, really, the ability of non-actors nowadays (due to practice gained from selfie and selfie-video culture) to let a camera be ever-present in their lives and not hide any of their emotions, regardless of the intensity and tragedy of their personal situations. All involved in this effort should be proud for having put all their pain on display, for the rest of us to learn from.
And it must be said that while there is mostly tragedy here, nevertheless, overall hangs the enduring, peculiar American romantic atmosphere that high school is a magical time of life, holding the most promise of good things to come.
Film Review: ‘Wrestle’
Director: Suzannah Herbert, Lauren Belfer
Starring: Jailen Young, Jaquan Rhodes, Teague Berres, Jamario Rowe, Chris Scribner
Running Time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Release Date in New York: Feb. 22
Rated 4 stars out of 5