Happy Valley: Sundance Review

The involving doc is more interested in emotions than facts.

Amir Bar-Lev looks at the reaction of football fans to the Penn State abuse scandal.

PARK CITY, Utah -- Less an investigation into or comprehensive summary of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal than a look at the feelings it elicited, Amir Bar-Lev's Happy Valley is more concerned with the phenomenon of team spirit than any single question of fact or moral judgment. A level-headed look at the way this community clumsily tried to reconcile loyalty to longtime head football coach Joe Paterno with revulsion at the crimes of his assistant Jerry Sandusky, the film won't reveal much to those who followed the story in the news. Those who come to it with little or no knowledge may suspect, with some justification, that they aren't getting the fullest picture possible of the case that triggered this crisis. Nevertheless, the film should generate plenty of interest on TV and VOD.

While some of the voids here are predictable (Sandusky, convicted of 52 counts of child molestation, is absent, as is his wife Dottie), others suggest a doc with minimal interest in journalistic investigation. We do not hear, for instance, from anyone in Penn State's administration or from prosecutors who might shed light on the chronology of the legal case against Sandusky. Instead Bar-Lev interviews a superfan of the university's football team, whose dorm walls are covered with pictures of Paterno, and a film professor at the school, who (while offering little insight into administrative decisions) has interesting things to say about the culture of sport fandom at a school like this, which he compares to with-us-or-against-us nationalism.

The filmmaker's biggest get is access to Sandusky's adoptive son, Matt, who dramatically changed his story during the trial. In a thoughtful interview, he describes how life-changing it was for an impoverished kid (brought up in a house with around 15 children but no running water, no toilets) to be taken under the wing of the second-most-revered coach in a coach-crazy town. He recalls telling investigators flatly that Jerry Sandusky never abused him, then, on the trial's first day, having an epiphany: "I knew 'Victim Four,'" he says. Hearing the accuser's story made him feel like a coward for saying nothing about his own molestation.

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Happy Valley isn't interested in the details of how charges brought by Sandusky's anonymous victims took so long to lead to an indictment or in how the case against him was proved. The film takes for granted his sudden status as a local pariah and focuses instead on how this all affected "Saint Joe," the coach who spent six decades building a program associated with ethics and academic achievement. Giving ample time to two of Paterno's sons and his wife, it acknowledges the allegations against him -- that Paterno had known of the abuse for years and did much less than he might have to stop it -- but leaves out some details that might lead us to side with those who believe he tended to his own interests at the expense of innocent boys. No mention is made, for example, of the fact that Paterno began planning a well-paid exit from his coaching career as soon as he learned prosecutors were investigating Sandusky. It also ignores a public statement Paterno made, as his firing became increasingly likely, to announce his retirement. Instead, the film presents Penn State's decision to fire him as a shock. "Didn't we deserve more?" asks wife Sue Paterno.

The narrative that interests Bar-Lev is one told with easily obtained footage of public outcry. We see the hordes of fans outside the Paterno home at the time of his firing, cheering for him and, with chants of "F--- the media," suggesting outsiders were to blame for all his problems. We watch the riot that followed, with a news van turned on its side by fans who attempted to set it ablaze. In the aftermath of the ouster and Paterno's death, we see angry confrontations between Paterno loyalists and detractors at a statue (later removed by the university) honoring him.

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Viewed only as a chronicle of Penn State's changing emotional climate during this period, and its attempt to keep old loyalties alive during a trying time, Happy Valley has value, despite its never asking if there's a segment of this community that has no stake at all in football or celebrity coaches. And perhaps it's fitting, given prevailing local sentiments, that the film is more generous to Paterno than a dispassionate observer might be. (Reports from Sundance say the late coach's family is pleased with the doc.)

Bar-Lev has told journalists he's interested in documentaries that "are exercises in holding opposing viewpoints at one time." In a morally complex world (and one in which some facts remain unknowable) such exercises are often useful. But they're most productive when each viewpoint is represented as thoroughly as the others.

Production Companies: Asylum Entertainment, Passion Pictures

Director: Amir Bar-Lev

Producers: John Battsek, Ken Dornstein, Jonathan Koch, Steve Michaels

Executive producers: Molly Thompson, Robert Debitetto, David McKillop

Directors of photography: Sean Kirby, Nelson Hume

Music: H. Scott Salinas

Editor: Dan Swietlik

No rating, 98 minutes