Full Frame 2013 Review: ‘Medora’ is So Much More Than Just Another Underdog Sports Documentary

By  · Published on April 6th, 2013

Small things matter in Medora, Indiana. It’s the kind of town where “enormous” only really applies to people’s pride, especially in the minimal size of their community, schools and achievements. But to them it’s relative. What may seem like small victories are really great ones. And no part of Medora is more illustrative of this than the high school basketball team, which is the absolute worst in a state famous for the sport. When – if – they ever win, it’s almost the equivalent of being named national champions.

Medora, a gripping and thoughtful documentary about this place produced by actors Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci, focuses on a single season with the Hornets, who in the previous year went 0–22. But it’s really about the endangered small towns having big trouble surviving in modern America, and not just because of the recent economic downtick. Factories have been gone, farms have been struggling and funding for public education institutions have been dwindling by the school year.

Directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart seem to only use the basketball story as a means to show smalltown America as an underdog against the rest of the world, though not exactly positively. We’ve seen countless movies stressing the poverty and the hopelessness of areas like this, and a lot of them wind up peddling inspiration. Medora is at times quite moving, perhaps even crowd-pleasing, but it can’t really be called uplifting, even when its subjects are at their most triumphant. The endurance of the town and the team is more respectable than rousing. It’s who they are.

Mid-film, Medora features a montage of life and landscape in the town overlaid with part of Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address. He declares, “that world has changed,” referring to basically all that Medora is and stands for, and that the new generation “must meet the demands of the age.” The family we see watching the speech on television is not enthused. The only other outsourced footage included in the documentary is archival film of the way things used to be – the good old days. Traditionalism matters here.

One can hardly see Medora as a celebration of its namesake. Never mind the dreary skies – a film following a basketball season in the Midwest is obviously going to have a grey, wintry atmosphere. It’s the concentration on trailer living and kids with holes in their shoes and an overall air of misery there. Fathers are missing, likely because they had to find work. Mothers are alcoholics, likely because the fathers are missing. Sons have to drop out of school to get a job, very much because the mothers are alcoholics and the fathers are out of the picture.

What Cohn and Rothbart do celebrate are the citizens of the town and the little things they do to get by. The alcoholic mother we meet is just out of rehab, again, and though her recovery isn’t talked about with great promise, she’s at least taking the baby step approach that addicts must honor as just one day at a time. Later one of the players is lauded for a similar small victory regarding his own drinking. Meanwhile, the Hornets would simply like to beat the other worst team in Indiana, because anything more would be overreaching.

It should be noted that the player with the alcohol-related triumph is the son of the alcoholic mother, because there’s something to the notion that Medora’s traditionalism is related to the problem of unfortunate cycles occurring in the town. While the elders wear their pride and nostalgic longing like a badge of honor, the youth are dreadful of what lies ahead for themselves. Most have very modest goals of getting out to a nearby college or the army or simply turning out better than their parents. Sadly, few will.

They’ve never had reason to be confident enough, probably because the American Dream in places like Medora was never as important as the American Promise – that is, not about moving ahead so much as staying put and being successful at living on what you’ve got. And for a time what they’d got was actually good enough.

Medora doesn’t offer much optimism about places like Medora, and specifically there’s never a suggestion that the Hornets will ever win a game. Their coach, who is also a local police officer, mostly just screams and complains. If there’s ever any strategy or a galvanizing speech from him, the cameras must have missed it. Every point they score feels like luck or merely isolated moments of basic skill. Except for one instance when a game is really close, the losses are embraced as the norm, admission of defeat much like that in their lives off the court.

Without a doubt, Medora will be compared to last year’s feature documentary Oscar winner, Undefeated, which followed a season with the worst high school football team in Tennessee. There are obvious similarities, but as much as Medora is already proving to be an audience and critical favorite on the festival circuit it doesn’t quite have the cheery, cliche underdog sports film appeal of its predecessor. It’s a lot darker, in part because it isn’t able to center on a charming, selfless, motivational hero of a coach, and it’s ultimately more despairingly about a town through its team than primarily the team itself.

Medora is actually better than Undefeated in the way it’s about so much more than its surface story and their similar backdrops of poverty in America. And it couldn’t be as easily adapted to a common narrative/drama version because of this. Medora has heart rather than merely the power to warm ours, but it is likely to heat up another of your organs, the brain. It’s a smart, perceptive film and as winning as the Hornets are not.

The Upside: Works as another great sports film, but it works better as a big picture of little America

The Downside: Not so much a criticism as a concern, as necessary and normal as it is to see, scenes in which the filmmakers just stand back and observe excessive teen drinking is problematic.

On the Side: Davy Rothbart is the publisher of “Found” magazine and co-director of two straight-to-DVD documentaries on the band Rise Against.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.