One small-town team’s aspirations for basketball adequacy fuel moving documentary tale in ‘Medora’

April 5, 2013

After I watched the new film “Medora” Friday afternoon, I mused about how easy it would be to reinvent this sports documentary as a Hollywood feature. Let’s call this invented picture “Jockstraps.” Here’s the elevator pitch: A team of scrappy, lovable small-town losers join together to overcome personal problems and end an oppressively long basketball losing streak.

Thankfully, “Medora” has some — and only some — of these narrative elements but shares none of the glibness of my imagined high-school sports romp. There are no Hollywood-handsome 20-somethings hogging the spotlight in this picture, which was co-directed by Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart. (The latter man created Found magazine and may be familiar to listeners of “This American Life.”)

Instead, we have a collection of frequently awkward real teenagers, their faces blemished by asymmetrical lines, acne and scraggly facial hair. At once sadly and refreshingly, these (yes) scrappy but lovable losers don’t overcome all of the challenges they face.

The Medora Hornets’ first-year coach, police officer Justin Gilbert, opens the picture berating his squad for a pathetic fourth-quarter effort in which they were held scoreless. Gilbert, a charismatic and handsome young man, has to walk a fine line — he must shatter his charges’ complacency about losing without breaking their spirit.

A key test of the team’s progress comes in their ninth game, when the Hornets face a similarly winless Lighthouse high school team in the Medora gym. The team comes close to victory but can’t seal the deal. Afterward, Cohn and Rothbart show a teammate and a family member consoling a tearful Corey Hansen, who blames himself for the loss after some late-game miscues.

Medora basketball, once a source of pride for the town, has fallen on hard times in part because of statewide and national trends. The decline of American manufacturing has left Medora and towns like it “closed,” as a local shopkeeper puts it. Consequently, many small towns have pooled resources and merged educational systems. With 72 students, and just 33 boys, Medora is one of the smallest public high schools left in Indiana; it routinely plays against consolidated schools with five to 10 times its student population.

Years of budget cuts mean that Medora school officials are facing financial pressure to make the same decision other small towns in the state and nation have. But they resist doing so, as it would end a tradition of Medora school and Hornets basketball that goes back generations.

“Medora” offers a rare glimpse into the problems of small-town America, which include alcoholism and poverty. One troubled player disappears from school and is kicked off the team after he returns; another, the son of an alcoholic, is caught drinking and is suspended. An assistant coach who works as a limestone cutter tries to school his charges on the possibilities life can offer them outside their small town and its narrow world view. One player considers attending technical school; another thinks about joining the Army.

Meanwhile, Gilbert has the team moving in the right direction, and Rusty Rogers, the alcoholic’s son, actually declines to have more than one beer at a homecoming after-party. What’s more, the movie’s game footage begins to show solid basketball plays being made not just by Medora’s foes but by the Hornets as well.

Most of “Medora” was evidently filmed in the 2010-11 basketball season, which followed an 0-22 campaign the year before. But the film has a mostly sweet coda: The 2012 graduation of a number of the team’s players, including Dylan McSoley, a would-be preacher whose life has been affected by family trouble. Commencement happens to offer a small moment of succor and redemption for McSoley, although it turns out to be short-lived.

Still, the picture’s end titles tell us that he’s doing better than at least one of his teammates, who dropped out before graduation. And the film leaves us to wonder about the fate of one of the other players, who ultimately passes on vocational college in favor of staying home to work on the family farm. So in the final reckoning, Cohn and Rothbart can’t provide us with a Hollywood ending — nor, to their credit, do they appear to have tried to do so.

Instead, “Medora” is a candid, appealing warts-and-all document of small-town America that allows viewers to appreciate the virtues of this vanishing way of life while also acknowledging its multiple serious pitfalls. The film is likely to open many eyes, minds and hearts to the problems of rural America, yet it still makes for enjoyable and often moving viewing. For doing that, “Medora” deserves to be seen widely.


One Response to “One small-town team’s aspirations for basketball adequacy fuel moving documentary tale in ‘Medora’”

  1. Wow, that is some movie…you have done an marvelous job once again! I began reading the first line and couldn’t stop. This sounds like a nice movie, doesn’t have that fairytale ending, but instead something real. You are right, this film will open many eyes, especially those who may be having the same problem. But overall, you did an EXCELLENT job!! :)

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