'Wrestle': Film Review

An involving look at the intersection of high school sports and poverty.

A New Yorker tries to give teen athletes in Alabama a shot at college in Suzannah Herbert's doc.

A documentary about high school sports with personal narratives and class/race-conscious themes that have a stronger pull than usual, Wrestle follows four high schoolers from Huntsville, Alabama, whose best hopes for the future may depend on scoring college wrestling scholarships. The first feature-length doc by Suzannah Herbert, it is smartly focused, offering nothing to distract from the stories it is able to fit within its running time. Though hardly the first movie of its kind, it feels more vital than many of its fellow descendants of Hoop Dreams, and reminds us there are more than a couple of sports offering pathways to a college degree.

Chris Scribner, a 28-year-old civics teacher at J.O. Johnson High School, was scorned by others in the area when he proposed getting students at this troubled school to form a wrestling team; a few years later, he's one of two white coaches guiding a mostly African-American group of students in a discipline they've taken to. Fifteen weeks out from the state championships, he's convinced they have a chance at winning, so Herbert introduces four kids who will require an unusual amount of hands-on leadership.

Jamario, a dreadlock-wearing senior who is the most physically impressive of the crew, may also be the most vulnerable. When we meet him, his mother suggests that the loud drama in his life originates from the girlfriend who will soon turn out to be pregnant. But it's clear that's not true: "Ro" feels daily stresses deeply, and often tries to bail out on commitments, requiring the coach he calls "Scrib" to convince Ro's relatives to come to matches for moral support.

Soft-spoken and the smallest of the quartet, Jailen introduces himself to us by pointing at the "self-portrait" on his bedroom wall: a slew of medals, some pictures and an esteem-boosting essay written as a classroom assignment. He and others have internalized the language of their elders, declaring their intention to break cycles of abandonment and poverty or to set their personal trajectories in ways that will benefit the broader communities.

We'll see all four of the boys tested in this department, with reed-thin Jaquan getting in the biggest trouble. When her son is busted at a traffic stop for having remnants of weed in his car, Jaquan's mother catches herself before lashing out at the friends who were equally responsible. But she doesn't hold back with her son: "You treat me worse than the men in my life have treated me," she says, and it's clear that's one of the most hurtful things she could say.

Teague, the one white kid in the bunch, has an unruly imagination and some behavioral issues that have led doctors to put him on four different medications. Unfortunately, the only drug we know he's taking is cannabis — more brazenly and frequently, it seems, than anyone around him. His habit causes him to do something shameful near the film's end, but when the coaches leave him to be reprimanded by his teammates, their response is surprising: After making sure with words that he knows how badly he's violated their trust, some end the confrontation by hugging him.

Decisions and their consequences are central to the doc, which offers a couple of tense interactions between black teens and white police officers. After we've seen each kid suffer through his own self-created dilemma, Scrib puts things in perspective. Away from the boys, he tells the camera, "I made all the same choices they did, and I was given a lotta [second] chances. I don't know how that's fair." He knows that, in this town and this school, it's the rare kid who can fall back on a teaching career.

In between all these personal stories, of course, there's wrasslin'. The doc very helpfully accompanies each bout with unobtrusive graphics showing how each boy's ranking (and eligibility for state contests) rises and falls. With each hoping to buck trends and go on to higher education, and with a scholarship the only likely way of doing that, those rankings mean more than just the possibility of a medal at the season's end.

Production companies: Exhibit A, Firefly Theater & Films
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Director: Suzannah Herbert
Screenwriters: Lauren Belfer, Suzannah Herbert, Pablo Proenza
Producers: Lauren Belfer, Seth Gordon, Suzannah Herbert, Steven Klein, Mary Rohlich
Executive producers: Walker Deibel, Micheline Levine, Steven Streit, Chad Troutwine
Director of photography: Sinisa Kukic
Editor: Pablo Proenza
Composers: Graham Edward Lebron, David Wingo

95 minutes