andrew cohn, basketball, bill courtney, bloomington, chaz cowles, davy rothbart, documentary, dylan mcsoley, hoosier hysteria, hornets, indiana, indiana university, iu cinema, james naismith, john mellencamp, justin gilbert, medora, muncie, muncie central, robby armstrong, rusty rogers, small town, stanely tucci, steve buscemi, undefeated, zack fish
James Naismith, the man who “invented” basketball, once said, “Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport.” I couldn’t agree more. For those of you who know Indiana basketball, you know it’s true. I was born and raised in Muncie, Indiana, and my high school, Muncie Central, holds the record for the most state championships in basketball. I’ve witnessed Hoosier Hysteria my entire life as I graduated from Indiana University, the pride of the state’s college basketball programs. Watching this film, it all looked familiar, even the struggles that the small town goes through at the same time the Medora Hornets struggle to get their first win in quite some time. This film is about far more than basketball – it’s about the demise of small town America, the loss of industry and ultimately the loss of identity.
Medora is a small town about 2 hours due south of Indianapolis. It’s population was listed at 693 in the 2010 Census. It’s most noted, according to Wikipedia, for its 438-foot long triple span covered bridge which is the longest covered bridge in the US. So it’s got that going for it, but not much else. With the loss of the brick factory and auto parts plant that were once there employing the majority of its citizens, there isn’t much holding Medora together.
At times like these in towns where things are desperate, they cling to local high school sports as a point of pride. But even here, Medora is struggling. Their basketball team lost every game they played in 2008-2009 and were suffering through a 12-game losing streak entering the 2010-2011 with no clear end in sight. The film opens with Coach Justin Gilbert (also a police officer) berating his players for not scoring a single point in an entire quarter (eight minutes in Indiana high school ball). This pretty much sets the tone for the film and what we can come to expect from the team throughout. They work hard but positive results are hard to come by. This, once again, is a metaphor for the townsfolk, who work and try to better themselves but the opportunities just aren’t there for them to succeed.
After we get our introduction to the team as a whole, Rothbart and Cohn give us in depth portraits of a few of the team members detailing their situations both in regards to the team and in their family situations. Rusty Rogers, the power forward of the team and arguably the best player Medora has, paints the most intriguing picture. His father is gone and his mother is in rehab for the third time for alcohol abuse. He is essentially homeless until the family of his teammate, Zack Fish, take him in. Rusty, a senior, is a hard working kid who took time off from school to work to help support his family prior to his mother’s entry into rehab. He hopes to use basketball to build his confidence for the next steps in life, which is hard since they cant seem to win. He moves back in with his mother when she gets out of rehab and the two of them try to build the life together that they envisioned before she had her troubles.
Dylan McSoley, the team’s 2-guard, is the next young man we see. He is a kid who thinks he wants to be a preacher when he gets out of school. He lives with his grandmother because he has several siblings at home and feels like he gets in the way. He’s never met his father and wavers back and forth as to whether he wants to. His situation shifts as his views change throughout the year. He eventually reaches out to his father in hopes of a reunion unsure of what will happen and how he’ll feel if they do meet.
The next kid we follow is Chaz Cowles, a talented freshman who has a history of discipline issues at home and at school. He seems to care about the team despite its losing, but fails to attend practices and even skips a game. Coach Gilbert has no choice but to dismiss him from the school. Does Chaz has the wherewithal to keep his nose clean and come back to help next year’s Medora Hornets?
The last kid that the directors follow is Robby Armstrong, a quiet big kid who plays center on the team. Even with a learning disability, he aims to be the first person in his family to leave Medora and go away to school and not work on the family farm.
The directors do an excellent job weaving footage of these kids and their trials and tribulations with testimonies from other townsfolk eager to talk about Medora’s hey day and melancholy when describing its demise. You can tell the people of Medora love their little town and are frightened that something should happen to it. The frequent topic that haunts them all is Medora High School being consolidated into another school thus losing anther sizable portion of their identity. With so many people having fled Medora when the jobs went away, their school population is so tiny and thus making it harder for them to compete athletically with other schools. But that doesn’t matter to the folks from Medora. They need that high school – it’s been a part of the town forever and they aren’t about to let it go.
The team’s struggles continue throughout the season, but the players and coaches try to stay positive and learn from each game, build on what they do each night. I’m thankful that the filmmakers were present for these boys’ time on the court, but also that they followed them off the court as well. They capture some pretty intimate moments like Rusty getting busted for drinking and getting suspended for a few games, catching the kids at a party and seeing Zack Fish drunk off his ass, chastising Rusty for not staying with the party and drinking more, seeing Robby talk to the recruiter from automotive school he plans to go to after he graduates. All of this is the real life portion that many documentaries fail to capture. And sure, some of it is unflattering, but that’s what makes us want to see these kids succeed because we’ve all been in similar situations. Without them, this is just a story about sports, and that isn’t what this film is about ultimately.
This film draws a lot of comparisons to Oscar-winner Undefeated (which I posted about here) and for good reason – it’s every bit as good, draws on similar themes, but ultimately focuses so much more on the kids whereas Undefeated focused as much on Coach Courtney as it did on the football players, but that was the story at Manassas. Not to say that Coach Gilbert wasn’t influential on his kids because it appears that he was. However, this film is as much about the town of Medora as it is these kids. Their struggles parallel one another.
I come from a town that is about 100 times bigger than Medora, is arguably the basketball mecca of Indiana and it, too, shares similar problems with Medora – business has left Muncie, student population is down so much that the once three-high school town is faced with consolidating the two that remain into one school. Traditions lost, pride hurt, but Muncie will carry on. It is fortunate to have a major university (Ball State) anchored to it, so its fate is ultimately brighter than Medora’s. This is one reason we can root for these kids at Medora and feel that we all are Medora Hornets after watching this film. This is an all-American story that most people can relate to. It’s universal and the filmmakers did such a wonderful job capturing that small town feeling that it felt a little bit like home to me and I found that comforting. I know these underdogs. I sat beside them in US history, drank beer with them on cold Indiana Saturday nights and walked across the stage at graduation with them. Maybe you did, too.
So congratulations to Rothbart and Cohn. They crafted an engaging film and told a story that needed to be told. I expect that this film will continue to garner praise as it sails from film festival to film festival, screening to screening. It’s hard to deny the pedigree that this film has. With Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi producing, there is Hollywood weight behind and justly so. If you get a chance to see this one, don’t pass it up. And if you happen to live near Bloomington, Indiana, this film will be showing 4 times at the IU Cinema the weekend before Thanksgiving. The directors will be all of the screenings as well. You can find more info here.
You can also watch the trailer here:
Also, cue the Mellencamp: