Film Review: Medora

Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart’s debut documentary feature is an evocative portrait of a small town in crisis. Too bad the basketball stuff keeps getting in the way.

Hoop Dreams is commonly and correctly regarded as one of the finest sports documentaries of all time. What people don't always recall about the film, however, is that the hoops come secondary to the dreams. Director Steve James uses basketball as a way in to explore such weighty subjects as race, class and America's education system and how they affect the lives of two central subjects, William Gates and Arthur Agee. Their on-court skills are part of the story, but decidedly not the whole story.

For the first half of its 82-minute running time (practically a novella when placed alongside Hoop Dreams' three-hour shot clock), the new documentary Medora seems to have absorbed that lesson as directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart focus their camera on the titular Indiana town where the high-school boys’ hoops squad he's embedded himself with—the Medora Hornets—plays. A once-thriving working-class community, Medora has fallen on hard times since its main sources of industry and employment (most notably the local automotive parts plant) either closed up shop or moved elsewhere. The decline of the community is reflected in the decline of the Hornets; in flush times, the team was a perennial contender and frequent champion with a deep bench of talent. As the town's population dwindled along with the number of job opportunities, though, the school also shrank in size, culling the list of eligible players. (Unlike surrounding small-town schools, which consolidated their student bodies, Medora’s high school remains independent.) In 2011, when Cohn, Rothbart and their crew came to town, the Hornets were in the midst of a years-long losing streak that had become the new normal.

To explore this landscape, the directors zero in on a handful of players who have compelling (and often troubled) personal histories that speak to the larger problems facing Medora. Robby, for example, is the son of a farmer who hopes to become the first member of his family to pursue his education beyond high school, despite their limited financial resources. Dylan, meanwhile, has chosen to live with his grandmother rather than his single mom, who remains estranged from the father he’s never met. And then there’s Rusty, whose mother is a recovering drug addict who has been in and out of various rehabs, often leaving her son to fend for himself. These kids inhabit a small world that’s growing smaller by the day, with increasingly limited opportunities to pursue whatever form the American Dream currently takes, be it a steady job, an above-average education, or simply a roof over their heads that they can call their own. What’s perhaps most dispiriting is that none of them appears able or eager to contemplate a life beyond Medora’s borders; whether it’s due to a lack of hope or a lack of resources, they seem to have accepted that they’re stuck in this place and are just trying to eke out whatever minor pleasures they can.

There’s no way around it: Medora presents a bleak vision of the current state of America’s so-called heartland. So bleak, in fact, that it appears to unnerve the filmmakers, who promptly pivot their focus midway through the film, abandoning the sociological survey that defines the first half in favor of the usual “rise of the underdogs” arc that defines so many inspirational sports movies (both of the fiction and nonfiction variety). To be fair, the Hornets are likely never going to become state champions again and the movie doesn’t pretend otherwise. But Cohn and Rothbart do make a concentrated effort in the film’s second half to overplay the team’s minor improvements and occasional victories—not to mention some of the good fortune that befalls the players, whether it’s Dylan finally meeting his dad or Rusty’s mom seemingly committing to a clean and sober lifestyle—for maximum uplift, lest they risk thoroughly bumming the audience out. The games come to dominate center court and, in fact, as the film enters the final quarter, it even seems to be arguing that there’s nothing wrong with this town that can’t be fixed by believing in themselves and cheering on the home team. Considering what we’ve seen previously (and what we learn of the kids’ current lives in postscripts that appear before the closing credits), however, it’s a somewhat disingenuous message that’s disconnected from the challenges that towns like Medora and teenagers like these confront on a daily basis. Basketball can be a beautiful game, but it’s just a game…the problems facing Medora couldn’t be more real.