Not Rated

"Homelessness" is a wide umbrella, and it's hard to compare a street junkie with an Afghani refugee displaced by the Taliban and civil war. But it all comes down to being adrift and desperate, and feeling deprived of life's most basic fundamental: a roof over one's head, a secure place of one's own. Each of us tends to view "the homeless" from the perspective of our own borders—our own home, as it were—and so this sports documentary made under the aegis of the cable network ESPN is eye-opening in ways that go beyond the initial "There's a soccer tournament of homeless people??"

That makes Kicking It—the title of which specifically alludes to the drugs and alcohol that afflict many homeless people's lives—a fine public-service announcement. As a documentary, it's hardly hard-hitting journalism, and a lot of unattributed facts fly by. "There are an estimated one billion homeless people in the world," one caption tells us. Really? An entire one-sixth of the world? I'd be more convinced if the filmmakers had actually attributed that remarkable figure to a source.

Actor Colin Farrell appears in the opening and closing few minutes with aching empathy as he describes how in 2001, a Scot and an Irishman wanted to find some team sport that people play all over the world, in order to give homeless individuals the experience of teamwork, self-discipline and accomplishment. What else could they choose but the universally played soccer, known as football all over the world outside the U.S. We pick up the fruit of their efforts in 2006, at the fourth annual World Homeless Cup in Cape Town, South Africa, where 500 players, in national teams of eight chosen among 20,000 participants worldwide, play four-on-four football in a weeklong tournament where the opening speaker is Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

We meet a handful of representative players, including Damien, 23, of Dublin, where a heroin epidemic has left hundreds homeless; Alex, 29, of the Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya; Jesus, 62, a virtually toothless Madrid alcoholic; Najib, 23, a refugee Afghani just returned to his homeland after fleeing to Pakistan to escape the Taliban; Slava, 27, from Shenkursk, Russia, a country where governmental and civilian corruption has contributed to five million homeless; and Craig, 19, a loudmouthed hothead who'd bounced through 13 group homes in 10 years before winding up in a tent near Charlotte, North Carolina.

It's not hard to sympathize with the African and Middle Eastern players in particular; war and broken economies are beyond any individual's control. The Americans and Europeans, however, just feed into the vision of the homeless man who brought it on himself and makes excuses for it. Jesus, who robbed banks for eight years—eight years!—before finally being imprisoned, shrugs it off with "There are things one does in one's youth." Yeah, that's not exactly egging the principal's house. Perhaps those individuals who lost their homes due to uninsured health-care costs or long-term unemployment after their job went overseas are too busy trying to make ends meet to play soccer.
That this documentary feeds some stereotypes and gives only cursory understanding but much hand-wringing is a shame. But then, many more people will see this on ESPN than in theatres, and if this documentary-lite helps raise consciousness a little among the beer-and-basketball set, then it has indeed walked a bit with the angels. And not the Los Angeles Angels, sports fans.
—Frank Lovece