Medora Dir. Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart

[Beachside Films; 2013]

Styles: americana, sports documentary
Others: Hoop Dreams, Hoosiers, Undefeated, Gummo

When you travel across the country, or even through your own state, you see countless signs for towns you’ve have never heard of, tagged with minuscule population figures. Sometimes you focus on the names, sometimes the numbers. Beyond what we can see from the interstate, driving by there is little way of knowing the histories or fortunes of those towns. Are they forlorn or forsaken? Have they been developed or decimated? When we think of the recent history of America, our lifetimes, the Rust Belt stands out as a prominent symbol of change, and often of degradation. The means of production and industry have evolved and devolved, leaving millions stranded in the wake of “progress.” For city-dwellers, the upwardly mobile urbanites, these refugees have become virtual foreigners.

The town of Medora, Indiana is an archetype in this allegory. A few years ago, a couple of curious journalists from the New York Times discovered a mecca of basketball in the downtrodden hamlet and wrote a story about an epic losing streak. Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart, the directors of Medora and publishers of the ephemera-filled Found Magazine, read that article and latched onto its irresistible hook. As native Midwesterners and basketball fanatics, they were compelled to drive hundreds of miles to bear witness. For their first foray as intentional documentarians, they became temporary residents of Medora, immersed in its fabric and dedicated to ethnography.

The town in question is one of poverty and drug-addled regrets, sheds converted to churches. Once thriving, Main Street is now shuttered and derelict, the automotive parts factory and brick plant are gone. There are only 500 people left, so everyone is a potential subject. Cohn and Rothbart pick four hapless Hornets to follow, and though each young man has a distinctive story, they all have a shared identity. They are teenagers who like to play basketball, party occasionally, trade girlfriends; the world they know does not stretch far past county lines. Two of the players sleep together in a subsidized home — one the son of a single alcoholic mother in rehab — another considers meeting his estranged father after receiving a Facebook message from him. A farm boy hopes to be the first in his family to graduate from high school, the poorest wears shoes with soles that flap when he rides his bicycle. But even in these conditions, there is still a scale of wealth. There is honesty and pity when a teammate conveys the struggles of deprivation.

This is, however, ostensibly a film about an undermanned basketball squad. They have volunteer coaches who dedicate their spare time to teaching lessons about discipline and perseverance. When the team fails to score a point in a fourth quarter, they are lambasted, told they should be embarrassed by their performance. When a game is close, the music rises; there is momentary hope. That is, of course, the reason we watch movies about underdogs. But I saw it as something other than a tale of triumph and competition. It is a dissection of the bottom, a paean to those dislocated in the land of opportunity. The outlook is grim, though it may be imperceivable. The players, the residents, they speak for themselves. Medora, too, sings America.

Most Read