‘Medora’ Finds Hope in the Time After Hope (5 stars)

To have hope, you need to see a path to success. What do you do when there is no path? Medora is a sports film that breaks all the formulas. Yes, there’s an underdog team to root for, a high school basketball team in Medora, Indiana. Medora’s high school is small, so they just don’t have the talent pick of schools ten times their size. It’s been three years since they won a game, and they won’t be staging a comeback against the ‘bad kid high school’ for the championship. They are defeated in a way that sticks.

Now even their town is facing exctinction. Medora was originally a two-factory limestone town, but its businesses have fled. The high school is the only badge of honor some townspeople have left, but it may be shut down, consolidated with a neighboring town’s high school. It’s been so long since Medora has had a break that they’ve entered a time after hope. Nobody hopes now to be number one. The basketball team is certain to finish dead last. Now they’re just plugging along because there’s nothing else to do. This is about survival.

Comprehensive only begins to describe the exhaustive documentation that directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart bring to Medora. They catch every emotional moment of the season on film, following four high school boys in their personal and sports lives. Even the best documentaries, such as Super Size Me, need filler and narration to hold together a jumble of vignettes. In Medora, with one exception, the story comes entirely from the boys telling their own story, and in large part through actually seeing their story unfold. This greatly increases the impact of the film (“show, don’t tell”) even more so because these are real lives. There are no young adults pretending to be in high school. These boys have acne. What they don’t have is a solid plan for their future, and the film’s main theme is not so much about success but about whether they can rekindle hope and get on some kind of path — any path. One boy has a mother in rehab. Another is trying to decide whether to contact a father he’s never met. It’s a perfect mixture of hope and pathos.

Davy Rothbart has made a career from this mix, as the creator and editor of FOUND Magazine, where you’ll find photographs of discarded trash, usually handwritten notes. The notes, which were never meant to be shared, teach us about the private joys and stresses of ordinary people, and make us feel less alone to have our own problems. Rothbart’s own story, and the stories of the people he meets on the road, are the feature of his new book, My Heart is an Idiot. Click for my interview with Davy Rothbart about the book. He is a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life. Co-director Andrew Cohn created the off-Broadway play FOUND: People Find Stuff. Now It’s a Show. and has directed material for Comedy Central and Fuse.

Perhaps it’s this experience that makes Medora so effective. Rather than interlace emotional moments with exposition, it feels like the film is entirely emotional moments. Close-ups show the reactions of the boys to each other and their situation. It’s very much the melancholy that NPR listeners love, but there’s never a lack of momentum, aided by quick cuts and music during the sports scenes. It’s remarkable just how much variety there is in the angles given what seems to have been a two-camera team. The boys they’ve chosen to follow aren’t superhumanly heroic or likeable, but the viewer can get as much from their struggle for identity and meaning as from seeing someone who from the start of the film has it all together.

Although it’s great to watch a movie like The Karate Kid about an underdog with a sharply defined goal, we’ve all been in a place in life when we feel beaten. It’s easy to get caught, so stunned that we can’t take any direction. Medora shows that you don’t need much to base a future on. You just have to keep moving. ‘Instead of treating people with where they are right now,’ a advisor tells the boys at one point in the film. ‘Treat them with the respect of where they could be.’

I’m glad to give Medora a full five stars. Attend the screening and Q&A with the directors at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Thursday November 14 at 8pm.