Hollywood has given us countless stories about underdogs trying to escape their harsh environments. Usually, we see a strict coach take on a squad of hopeless athletes and whip them into shape before sending them on their way to a successful future. We gravitate towards these stories because who doesn’t like rooting for the underdog? But Hollywood has a habit of showing us happy endings. Real life doesn’t always enjoy that luxury.
Wrestle, a feature-length documentary by Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer, looks at underdogs in the real world. The film follows an Alabama high school wrestling team and their coach in the lead up to the State Championship. Wrestling isn’t just about competing for these students, though. It is their only realistic pathway to a college education and a better life. Unfortunately, due to social deprivation and the problems that arise with it, the path to glory isn’t so easy.
Herbert and Belfer’s doc adopts a fly on the wall approach and chronicles the day-to-day normalities of the wrestling team and their families. It’s pretty evident from the get-go that Huntsville, Alabama, is a city that’s been left behind. We meet kids with absent parents whose extracurricular activities mostly comprise taking drugs. Their school is also one of the worst in the state for students’ grades. The people of this city were born into a life of disadvantage, and if the doc highlights any major issue it’s that there’s a subset of American youths out there with little in the way of prospects.
Wrestle often makes for uncomfortable viewing. You get the impression that it’s only a matter of time before someone’s future is ruined due to an unfortunate incident that’s brought on by their environment. In addition to the problems of drug use and a crumbling education system, we’re also introduced to a world of teenage pregnancy, concerned parents, and racial profiling. The film might focus on specific people in their daily lives, but viewers are bound to leave with some food for thought about the issues that created this environment in the first place.
The filmmakers’ approach is very effective. By stepping back and capturing the subjects in the heat of the moment, the doc provides some telling insights into each person’s everyday struggle. As such, some scenes are quite illuminating. There’s a moment where one of the teens is stopped by a policeman for urinating on a sidewalk. He admits that he feared being shot, due to all the reports of cops shooting unarmed black men that have made the news all too frequently. We also meet a kid called Teague, who has lost his will to succeed despite his athletic talent affording him a potential way out.
If you come into Wrestle expecting a sports documentary, then you might be surprised at the film’s clear desire to shed a light on social and personal turmoils. That said, the scenes featuring actual wrestling are riveting due to the high stakes involved in each bout. Every win means so much more than adding medals and trophies to a shelf. Watching these kids literally compete for a better future is nerve-shredding, to say the least. Of course, fans of combat sports will enjoy watching them grapple as well.
Despite the film’s focus on people undergoing hardships, there’s also threads of hope to be found. Coach Chris Scribner is living proof of someone who fought back from the brink and succeeded. In the film, he discusses how he squandered opportunities but still managed to overcome his personal demons to instigate some change. His team was written off from the beginning, so the fact that he turned them into a State Championship caliber unit is nothing short of amazing. And while his methods are tough at times, he’s also a much-needed role model for the students — most of whom don’t know their own fathers.
Ultimately, Wrestle does for amateur wrestling what Hoop Dreams does for basketball. In many ways, it’s an inspirational doc about overcoming the odds. At the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from showcasing the downside of reality, either. Sometimes hopeful, other times heartbreaking, Wrestle is an honest portrait of disadvantaged American youth that will inspire empathy and leave viewers with lots to ponder. I can’t recommend it enough.