Medora: Film Review

Medora Film still - H 2013

Medora Film still - H 2013

There's little hope on display in this microcosm of the decline of the American heartland.

Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart's documentary chronicles the losing season of a small town high school basketball team.

The increasingly desperate state of America’s heartland is movingly depicted in Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart’s documentary about a perennially losing high school basketball team that makes Hoosiers seem like a light comedy. Using the plight of the hapless team and its troubled young players as a microcosm of American society in decline, Medora, inevitably bound to be compared to the more ambitious and accomplished Hoop Dreams, nonetheless scores some winning points in powerful fashion.

The titular Indiana town is clearly in sad shape, its population reduced to 500 after such devastating events as the closing of its formerly thriving automotive parts factory and brick plant. The local high school has resisted the trend of consolidation and remains independent, but with a student population of just 72 it’s not exactly easy to fill the ranks of its varsity basketball team.

And indeed the Medora Hornets have fallen on hard times as well. Documenting their 2010-2011 season, the film delivers scenes of one losing game after another, with the increasingly morose players unable to respond to the desperate efforts of their volunteer coach.

The filmmakers point a spotlight on several of the players, including Rusty, whose addict mother is in rehab, forcing him to bunk at a classmate’s house until he’s forced to leave after they’re nearly evicted from their trailer park; Robby, who wants to go to college despite his farmer family’s lack of funds; and Dylan, who’s chosen to live with his grandmother instead of his harried single mom and agonizes over whether or not to meet the father who abandoned them years earlier.

Using Walker Evans-style photography to convey the town’s dire economic state -- there are plenty of shots of vacant storefronts and bleak landscapes -- the film features a scene in which the school’s board members desperately try to figure out how to compensate for a budget shortfall of $280,000.

Alternating between vignettes both joyful (the senior prom) and despairing (one of the boys is arrested for drunken driving), Medora paints an evocative portrait of a small town fallen that’s seen much better days. Its plight is made all the more poignant by the inclusion of archival footage and photographs of both the town and the basketball team in long-ago happier times. The end credits coda, in which we learn the current states of the film’s principal figures, provides barely a modicum of hope.

Opens Nov. 8 (Beachside Films)

Production: Olive Productions, Seven34 Films

Directors: Andrew Cohn, Davy Rothbart

Producers: Andrew Cohn, Davy Rothbart, Rachel Dengiz

Executive producers: Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci, Wren Arthur, Michael Clark, Tim Foley, Alex Turtletaub

Director of photography: Rachael Counce

Editor: Vanessa Roworth

Not rated, 82 min.