SXSW Film Review – Medora
Being in your late teens is a scary time. You’re still a kid, with kid-like tendencies, but adulthood is fast approaching, with all the responsibilities and uncertainties that come along with it. When I was that age, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in a month’s time, let alone in a few years. In Andrew Cohn‘s and Davy Rothbart’s documentary Medora (2012), we are introduced to a group of high school kids living in the small rural community of Medora, Indiana. Centered on the school’s basketball team, we get a glimpse into those who populate the town, their daily struggles, and how they all work to survive in a place that seems to be quickly dwindling. It’s not just about basketball—it’s about these young people attempting to carve out their own identities.
The premise might sound a little familiar to Hoop Dreams (1994), which also focused on youth and basketball. However, the main difference is that in Steve James’s film, the teenagers were basketball stars, using their unique gifts as a way to pull their families out of poverty. The same cannot be said here. Medora’s basketball team is not a good one. When we are introduced to them, they are in the middle of a losing streak that has now numbered in the forties. They barely compete with opposing teams, losing by margins that approach fifty points. The school is so small (there are roughly seventy students that attend) that players have to join both the varsity and JV teams. Quickly, the team comes to the realization that winning one single game has become their main goal.
It wasn’t always like this. Archival footage along with testimony from the townfolk reveals that Medora was once a growing community. However, when the plastic factory (the main source for jobs) was shut down, the once-promising Medora quickly faded to be a shell of its former self. Businesses closed, buildings were left abandoned, and drugs and crime creeped in. As a result, many families were left poor and struggling, some parents fell into addiction, and other parents simply disappeared. What’s left is a group of teens on the brink of growing up, who have to choose between furthering their education, getting a job, or succumbing to the temptations the same way many of their parents have.
The players are made up various types of personalities, and yet they are all molded from the same economic hardship. Some show promise—even the desire to leave the town after graduation for bigger things. One kid, Dylan, has plans to join the ministry with the potential to one day become a priest. Another, Robbie, wishes to go college, although the need to help work his family’s farm tugs him in the other direction. Rusty, one of the better players on the team, found himself on the street at the age of 15 due to his mother’s alcohol addiction, but managed to stay in school while living with a friend’s family. It is fascinating to see these people at this particular age, because we can sense that they want to do the right thing, but are only one or two bad choices from throwing it all away. One person of concern is Chazz, who was arrested for a gun charge and constantly finds himself in trouble, risking his spot on the team.
Cohn and Rothbart paint each character in intimate detail—we get a sense for each one and we find ourselves hoping that they not only win one game, but also live their lives to the fullest potential. Not every story ends happily, as credits describe where the teens end up at the close of the school year and some time beyond, but that unfortunately is the reality of life. Only when the filmmakers pull the narrative out to examine the state of the economy at a national level does the film start to waver. One particular scene shows a family watching a speech on the economy by President Barack Obama. Not one single person says a word as the speech is shown on television. This removes the story from its intimate focus, and the pacing screeches to halt to make broad political statements without really supplying any answers. As this was happening, I was almost certain someone was going to say something along the lines of “We know, we’re living it!”
But with that aside, Medora is a moving film about the kind of town that is quickly disappearing across the country. It doesn’t provide options to fix the problems, but calls attention to questions that desperately need to be asked. Medora was once a growing population, but has fallen on hard times, to the point that the school itself comes under threat of closure. That is what makes winning a game all the more important. This is the one and only time these kids will be in this position, and if they do end up accomplishing their goal, it’ll mean a lot more than just a check mark in the win column.