Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

December 10, 2013

Basketball team, small town struggle with defeat

Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— If “Medora” were just another movie about a hard-luck high school basketball team, you might pan it and say, “So what? Who cares? Seen that.”

But it would be a mistake to dismisses this 82-minute documentary about a small town in southern Indiana and its 72-student high school that knows more despair than success.

"Medora" takes an intimate, raw look at people struggling now that the world has sped past them - much as it has thousands of other rural communities in America.

The film is showing at selected theaters or can be seen on-demand at www.medorafilm.com. It will be featured on the PBS program “Independent Lens” beginning March 31.

If the rollout is unconventional, so is the movie.

The film centers on a basketball team but is really about the survival of a way of life. One resident of Medora, whose population hovers around 700, observes: “Once we lose these small towns, we can’t get them back.”

What makes this story different is that it’s told by teenagers, some who have dreams and aspirations and others who struggle to make it to the next day.

Producers Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn set up this conflict early in the movie. Coach Justin Gilbert excoriates his team, which lost all 22 games the previous year, for failing to score a point in the fourth quarter of another humbling loss.

“Are you kidding me?” he says. “You had no points. Zero. Zero points in the fourth quarter. Zero. None. In eight minutes. Eight minutes. Eight minutes. Zero. Are you kidding me?”

The players slump, their heads bowed, on a locker room bench. Their expressions range between lost and humiliated.

If that was bad, an observation by one of the team’s better players is even more wrenching. Introspective Dylan McSoley ponders life without a father and whether he should try to contact him. “Hey, this is Dylan McSoley. You might not know me, but I’m your son,” he says, leaving a telephone message for a man he’s never seen except for once on a Facebook post.

The film explores the stories of other players: Rusty Rogers faces homelessness as his mother battles alcoholism. Robby Armstrong wants to be the first in his family to graduate from high school. Chaz Cowless, arrested on a gun charge, seems to spend much of his time trying to avoid the law.

Watching this movie, you must remind yourself that its dialogue is from actual words spoken by teenage boys, not crafted by a scriptwriter. Hearing their stories, one wonders how the players survive in a place described by one as “a meth-head town full of drug addicts and a bunch of drunks.”

That comment strikes at the movie's theme - a defeated town versus a defeated team.

It wasn’t always that way. Once Medora, Ind., was seen as a prosperous community where jobs were plentiful and people lived the American Dream. In the days before school consolidations became popular, the Hornets were competitive, winning more than their share of games.

Then the day came when the plastics plant and brick factory closed, terminating workers and their livelihoods.

Rothbart said “Medora” isn’t a politically driven movie, but there is a salient scene in which a family watches President Obama discuss the challenges facing the country. In the movie, his words were framed against images from around Medora - a view that depicts more past than future.

It makes one wonder if there's a future for small-town America, once described as the soul of the country, and if anything could reverse the downward trend.

Unlike the 1986 classic “Hoosiers," which portrays an Indiana high school team destined for greatness, "Medora" ultimately depicts only a glimmer of success that is celebrated with a late-night ride through town on a fire truck - just like in the old days.

It is doubtful this scene signals a reversal of fortune, however. More likely it is one last happy hoorah for a team and community struggling to stay relevant.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com. "Medora" is available on demand on iTunes and at www.medorafilm.com.