Taking an unexpected sports rivalry as an excuse to watch a handful of minority teens and coaches try to improve their lives amid anti-immigration rage, Billy McMillin’s debut documentary The All-Americans introduces us to two football teams in East Los Angeles whose annual showdowns draw an impressive crowd. Roosevelt and Garfield high schools have long faced off in a homecoming event known as The Classic, held almost every year for close to a century. Centering on subjects who are sympathetic but whose stories are much like others we’ve heard, the doc may not get as much box office mileage out of its sports theme as it might have if presented in a more straightforward, ESPN-like way. Nevertheless, it will likely find some love in Latino communities.
After setting the scene with talk-radio clips spouting the usual anti-immigrant blather, McMillin gives a very brief history of the game that typically draws more than 20,000 avid fans, and that some in the community think about all year. In fact, we meet the teams nine months before game day — during February of the previous school year, when varsity tryouts are held.
Rather than focusing on the drama of those tryouts, McMillin gets right into introducing the characters who’ll matter most in the big event: The coaches of both teams (one of whom also holds down a job as a cop), their quarterbacks and a couple of key players with lots going on off the field.
Joseph, for instance, is a sophomore who already has a daughter, and works as a baker to support her. His own mother isn’t in the picture, and his father, a man with a checkered past, doesn’t hesitate to admit what he wants to see when he goes to a game: He wants to see Joseph hurt people.
Mario, on the other hand, is a dedicated student and a former altar boy. Fourteen family members share three bedrooms in Mario’s home (some of them living in fear of immigration officials), and he intends to go to an Ivy League school to raise the family’s standard of living. He’s already getting letters from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. But even if he’s accepted, paying for college will be daunting.
The outsider here is Stevie, a senior who’s not a part of this community either racially (he’s black) or geographically (he lives in South Central). Stevie’s mom didn’t want him to go to school in his own neighborhood, and it seems that Garfield’s coaches were happy to draw talent from other parts of the city. (As opposed to Roosevelt coach Javier Cid, who makes it a point of pride that his players have all grown up together near the school.) Some Garfield alums who remain invested in their team’s performance resent Stevie’s presence — especially those whose own sons compete for spots on the starting lineup.
Though it follows a familiar format, devoting its middle third to the games leading to Homecoming and the final act to the game itself, All-Americans doesn’t really play like a sports drama; football is mostly an excuse to pay attention to these kids. But that focus is diluted by the number of people we’re spending time with. If, for instance, Mario and Stevie got the lion’s share of attention, we might learn enough about these likable young men to be more invested in the arc of their year.
As things stand here, we’re certainly curious to see where each student winds up (and, to a lesser extent, who wins the game). But we’ve hardly had an experience we can’t get from a reasonably deep newspaper profile.
Production company: Delirio Films
Director-screenwriter: Billy McMillin
Producers: Rafael Marmor, Christopher Leggett, Billy McMillin, Timm Oberwelland
Executive producer: Becky G
Director of photography: Ann Rosencrans
Editors: Billy McMillin, Philip Thangsombat
Composer: John Piscitello