Audible


High school football is high school football no matter who plays it.

(2021) Documentary Short (Netflix) Amaree McKenstry-Hall, Jalen Whitehurst, Lera Walkup, Ryan Bonheyo, Jamal Johnson, Teddy Webster. Directed by Matthew Ogens

 

This new documentary on Netflix is only 38 minutes long. It’s one of those rare cases where you leave a movie feeling that you wish it had been longer.

The film follows Amaree McKenstry-Hall, a senior on the football team of the Maryland School for the Deaf. This is one of the most successful teams in the country having had a 47-game winning streak snapped as we begin the film. McKenstry-Hall, clearly a leader on the team, tells his team to keep their heads high – not to let one loss define them. They have one game left in the season – and it happens to be the homecoming game.

This is more of a slice of life film than a “triumph over adversity” film, although that element is certainly there. We never see the homecoming game or how it turned out. Instead, we see Amaree dealing with his deafness, feeling isolated at home – he was not born deaf but became dear after a childhood illness. His father left the family soon afterwards, but as we see in the film is starting to rebuild his relationship with his son after years of crime and jail led to a spiritual reawakening and a desire to make amends. The relationship between the two is fragile, but improving.

We also discover that Amaree is dealing with the suicide of his friend Teddy Webster, a young man who was taken out of the Maryland School of the Deaf and put into a public high school where he was bullied unmercifully, not just for being hard of hearing (other students would regularly flick his hearing aid out of his ear) but also for being gay. His boyfriend Jalen Whitehurst is a cheerleader on the MSD team, along with Lera Walkup, Amaree’s girlfriend.

As you might imagine, the film utilizes sound design to simulate from time to time what deaf people experience. Not all deafness is the same; some hear absolutely nothing while others hear muffled and distorted sounds. The students can feel the vibrations of the music at the dance (or at a bonfire) and dance to it with the reckless abandon of youth.

If there is one criticism to be made, it’s that the movie really kind of glosses over a lot of important things; the suicide of Teddy Webster is clearly an important element in the story, but it is brought in late and discussed only in generalities. The movie also moves from being about a football team, to being a slice of life for the deaf community, to being about an individual player, to being about bullying and maybe that’s a bit too much ground to cover in a movie just over half an hour long.

This film gives you a better idea of the day-to-day realities of being a deaf high school student; it doesn’t ask for or elicit sympathy, nor does it make the student outs to be any more extraordinary than any young person dealing with an issue. What it does is make them relatable; they are, at the end of the day, like any other kids their age – they love sports, they love music, they love hanging out with each other, they hurt when someone close to them is taken from them, and they worry about their future when they graduate. It is eye-opening in its own way, but I think that the movie at the end of the day reminds us that people with disabilities are no more different than you or I; they just have challenges that you and I don’t experience, and they have long since learned to adapt their lives around them. This one is definitely worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Leaves you wanting more. Incredible sound design.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit unfocused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is discussion of teen suicide and bullying, and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ogens has directed several films in the prestigious ESPN 30 for 30 series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pahokee
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Surge at Mount Sinai

Song of Parkland


A chorus line of inspiration.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Melody Herzfeld, Ally Richard, Alex Wind, Ashley Paseltine, Alex Athanasiou, Jared Block, Sawyer Garrity, Emma Gonzalez, Dylan Redshaw, David Hogg, Heather Hart, Emma Summers, Cameron Casky, Molly Reichard, Kelly Mathesie, Ariel Braunstein. Directed by Amy Schatz

 

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t normally review short films. In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever published on this site. Then again, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2008 – less than a week from the one-year anniversary of the event as I write this – resonates with me in a way that few events can. For one thing, it happened in Florida where I live. For another, this was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back as teens who were tired of this same old story being repeated over and over and over again with “thoughts and prayers” being the only political response that came of any of these massacres.

On that terrible day drama teacher Melody Herzfeld sheltered her 65 drama students in a store room for two hours until police came to escort them out. Only then did the students – and their teacher – discover that 17 of their peers had died in the tragedy and another 17 were injured. And the survivors needed to find a way to cope with that. How can a 14-17 year old find the strength to deal when most adults can’t?

For Herzfeld, the answer was to finish what the kids had started. They had been working on the children’s musical Yo, Vikings and were in rehearsal the day of the shootings. The drama department puts on an annual kid’s play and it is one of the highlights of their season. The show must go on and so it does and we get to watch it unfold but it isn’t without cost. The kids are hurting deep inside and it comes out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two of the young people write songs about their feelings, helping them to process what they are going through (we get to hear both songs during the course of the film). And yes, the students go under a media microscope as several of them (including some in the drama class) choose to become advocates of gun control and become the faces of change for a generation. Admired by some, demonized by others, these young people say what you will about them at least made an effort to make change for the better although of course that will depend on your definition of “better.”

Schatz relies heavily on talking head interviews with the kids, interspersed with news reports and occasional cell phone footage. This isn’t about the shootings themselves – we don’t see that aspect of it – but about how the kids adjusted to unthinkable trauma. When the students are interacting with each other, goofing around, being themselves – those are the best moments in the film. Even the real heart-tugging moments – the Tony Awards performance of “Seasons of Love” from Rent, for example – is less compelling.

I would have actually liked to have seen a full-length feature made here and spend more time with say, the parents of the drama students, other teachers besides Herzfeld, that sort of thing. We definitely get a very limited perspective and while it is most valid to concentrate on the students themselves, ranging a bit further opinion for perspective would have brought a little more clarity.

I got the sense that this was an act of catharsis, not only for the filmmakers but for the students themselves. I’m sure that in the days that followed the tragedy they became used to describing their feelings and the events as they saw them must have gotten to be old hat but there feels like there was a lot of genuine emotional healing going on here. It’s gratifying to see but also heartbreaking that it was necessary. This is by no means the perfect documentary but it is, in it’s brief 28-minute run time unforgettable.

REASONS TO GO: The students express themselves well through song. The film is powerful, timely and heartbreaking. One gets the sense that it was cathartic for all involved just making this documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: While none of the violence is depicted, the themes of grieving and feeling of insecurity at school may be difficult for impressionable children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parkland: Inside Building 12
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel