In an era where experiences are increasingly personalized, digitized and individualized, there are fewer outlets where one can lose themselves in a collective experience. And sports is one of those avenues. When it comes to high school sports, particularly in the United States, it can often be the thread that ties together students, parents, coaches, players, supporters and more from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds into one common cause. But for the citizens of Medora, Indiana, the high school basketball team means so much more: it’s the only point of pride left in a town that has little to hold on to.
Perhaps the most devastating example of the erosion of the middle class over the last few decades, Medora is a textbook study of the evaporated American Dream. Once home to two factories that employed a large portion of the city, Medora was once prosperous, successful and booming but after both plants closed, things quickly went south. Poverty is rampant, job or life opportunities are few, and with a population hovering around 500, and shuttered storefronts and homes a popular sight, Medora stands on the edge of being a ghost town. But it’s the Medora Hornets, the varsity basketball squad, who are one of the very few bright lights for the city, and that’s even with a record of 0-22. That’s right, as directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart turn their camera to the team in their documentary “Medora,” they’re starting a new season hoping to do what seems like the impossible: win a game.
But that task will be an uphill climb. Unlike most districts in the state, which have closed local schools and formed large consolidated institutions instead, serving many municipalities, and featuring student bodies that number in the hundreds, Medora has to work with the what they’ve got. And so, their ragtag bunch is made up of any able and willing young men with passion and discipline to stay committed to the team. But the biggest obstacles aren’t so much found on the court, as off it. Rusty has already been forced to drop out of school once to support himself, the child of a mother who is just getting out of rehab (again) for alcohol addiction. Robby is a power forward with a learning disability. Dylan, absent a father figure, has turned to his faith and aspires to be a preacher with the belief that if life has let him down, God never will. But when they get on the court, all of those issues wash away.
Running just over 80 minutes long, Cohn and Rothbart aren’t exploitative of their subjects, but instead simply act as witnesses in one year in the lives of these kids, their school and this town. And in this regard, “Medora” works as an observational portrait, creating mini-arcs around some of the key players—will they meet their long, lost father? Will the mother stay sober? Will they move on to college and a career?—but due to the scant running time, the doc never feels like it goes deep enough. This is mostly because the actual citizens of Medora are left on the bench. While we’re repeatedly told how crucial the Medora Hornets are to the spirit of the town, that evocation is largely underserved except for a couple of small sequences. And the connection the filmmakers want to make between the basketball team and the community at large just misses. At other times, the filmmakers get in their own way, with one important and climatic event unevenly shot and edited to the point where the emotion that should be felt is deflated as the audience is left scrambling to try and piece together the hazily assembled cuts.
But spirit goes far, both in the town of Medora and in the documentary. And the simple humanity of guys like Coach Justin Gilbert, a cop by day, who provides tough love in his unflagging determination to keep spirits high and get the Medora Hornets a much-needed victory or Rudie Crane, an assistant coach who gets up at 3 AM everyday, works a full shift and then comes to school to help with the kids, rings louder than any three-point shot at the buzzer. “Medora” could have used more of that sort of focus. But it’s also a minor complaint for a film as earnest and well-meaning as this one. It may not strike the political notes it wants to hit completely, and may fall just short of the impact it would like to achieve, but “Medora” provides a sweet, small tale of survival, not just of a high school basketball team, but of a town trying not to get eaten up by supposed progress. [B-]