There is a new literature forming around the Appalachia-adjacent states of our country. It began with one of the finest American books, Hillbilly Elegy, and has extended into film. It used to be said we must understand the middle of the country to understand its heart, that the heartbeat of America thumped loudly in the agricultural regions. Alabama, often left out of the conversation, has now received a couple important documentaries in back-to-back years. Last year’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), was a visual poem of the cultural landscape. It got into images exactly the feeling of the place and the sense of the people. The goals of Wrestle (occasionally pronounced Wrassle in the picture), are more inward-looking – what happens to men raised by women, when all they have is their sport?
Wrestle has been pitched as the Hoop Dreams (1994) of wrestling, which is not far off. Wrestle’s great moral victory is its patience with the subjects. They can make frustrating decisions and their family do not always help. It is clear the men included have been raised by strong mothers who must play the tough love role of mom and dad. Their primary father figure is their wrestling coach.
Chris Scribner must wear many hats. He’s a civics teacher at a struggling school in Huntsville, Alabama, one that is facing imminent closure. He develops a wrestling program out of nothing, its own triumph of the human spirit and the propensity for good. He plays father, friend, teacher, coach to his many athletes. He’s a white man with an authorial position at a mostly black school. He’s a former addict whom utilizes his recovery to inspire the men he works with. Chris shows tremendous sacrifice. He has a one-on-one relationship with his athletes, inspiring them to turn in meaningful work and become productive members of their community. He’s the guy these kids call when they’re pulled over by the cops (which incidentally happens twice in a single season.) He’ll pick up family members and make house visits to keep morale, literally giving the shirt off his back when it’s needed (“this was worn to both of Obama’s inaugurations, you’ll want to keep it.”)
The story concerns four of his most prominent wrestlers and their journey to make State. Directors Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer have carefully created a diorama, a slice of four young men’s lives and how they correspond to their fight – and only hope – for scholarships. The film traces the team’s third season in total, with renewed hope from these four kids to bring their flailing, underfunded school toward something like temporary glory.
The wrestling is lensed sympathetically and naturally. There are nice recaps after each match that show everyone’s standings, as they climb the rankings, and all four men are admitted into the final tournament. It’s not totally surprising but a little dispiriting what kind of adversity is shared among four men in only one season. Two young men are pulled over for fairly minor offenses (pissing in public, a dimming taillight), and there is a feeling these racially sensitive situations may escalate if not for the cameras. A cop faces the camera and says, make sure to get all of this to show how disrespectful these boys have been. It’s a Black Lives Matter kind of situation, one Wrestler prescribes. Another boy’s grappling with a more important battle – he’ll be the first in his family to graduate High School and even have hopes of college. Meanwhile, he’s confronted by personal demons: a difficult family situation, and a tense relationship with his now pregnant girlfriend. Yet another boy struggles with pot and is prone to great mood swings but is also a defensive maverick on the mat. They all have significant pain behind their eyes and their wrestling comes as an exhibition of personal strength – win or lose – a victory against the odds.
Wrestle becomes what any great sports Documentary hopes to be. It’s a thorough examination of the human element behind sports. It takes time to understand the subjects. The crew got over 600 hours on film to work with and have cut it to a very compelling 96 minutes. Wrestle is the sports documentary of 2019. It’s a powerful and resonant journey of hope.