Thursday, March 7, 2019

Wrestling with a multitude of problems

Twenty-eight-year-old Chris Scribner taught civics at J.O. Johnson High School in Huntsville, Ala. More importantly, Scribner also coached the high school's wrestling team. Directors Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer latch onto the story of that team as it wends its way through the 2015-16 seasons, inching toward the state championship competition. But the value of Herbert and Belfer's documentary, Wrestle, has as much to do with wrestling with life's problems as it does with wrestling on any mat. The directors display an unflagging commitment to following the bumpy lives of teenagers who attend a "failing" high school with no previous history of competitive wrestling. Confining itself to straightforward moves, Wrestle immerses us in the lives of black students whose collective experiences illuminate issues of race, economic deprivation, and, of course, adolescence. Jamario, a moody but gifted wrestler, learns that he's going to be a father. Teague, the only white kid on the team, struggles with drugs. A traffic stop leads to a marijuana bust for Jaquan. Jallen, perhaps the most promising of the kids, has a run-in with a cop who accuses him of public urination. You get the picture. These young men are fighting long odds and their coach pulls no punches with them nor does he make any attempt to curb his language. Perhaps Scribner's commitment derives from what he describes as his own youthful experiences with substance abuse. The directors follow the story where it leads them and Wrestle leaves us with an overriding question. Will these young men conquer in life as they sometimes do on the mat? We're not entirely sure, but we grow to like these kids and wish them well. That's a reflection of the involvement created by a good documentary, which -- in this case -- happens to be about young people who wrestle and a coach who seems to invest every ounce of his being in them.

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