There is no off screen talking head cranking out the day-to-day events that occur in the Midwest town of Medora, where the Hornets, a young men’s high school basketball team, struggles to win a game in what now looks like a ghost town beset by economic drought. Instead, Rachel Counce’s searing cinematography allows us to flow seamlessly from trailer park to locker room to a brightly decorated high school gym Homecoming Dance and to gleaming Indiana wheat fields, capturing through uncut dialogue the dreams and despair of the often dispirited but, ultimately, triumphant players.

On the surface, the pounding and dribbling of the basketball leads us to believe this 80-minute documentary (cut from 600-hour footage) is the quintessential sports film but, as the directors explained at Thursday evening’s Chicago screening, the story ended up, too, exposing the fragile fabric of Middle America. Medora, a once thriving town boasting brick and automobile factories has lost fathers and funding. The young men weigh their limited options; Rusty, for a spell, resorts to living in his car; Dylan intrepidly establishes contact with the biological father who pays child support, but emotionally abandoned him. “He’s missing out,“ his grandma assures him in one particularly loving segment.

An army recruiter visits; an earnest mother discloses achieving consecutive days of sobriety. And, although the Hornets ultimately make the community proud when they score, their problems don’t magically float away in some kind of hollow, blockbuster finale. That’s the magic of 'Medora'.

Co-directors, Brooklynite Andrew Cohn ('Dynamic Tom', 'Chile Road)' and Midwest native (now Angelino) Davy Rothbart (editor 'FOUND Magazine', 'GQ', 'The New Yorker', documentaries 'Another Station', 'Rise Against: Generation Lost'), pooled their talents, pulled up stakes, moved into the community and spent a year getting to know and establish trust with the young men and family members.

There were no bit players in the film, Cohn explains: “Many of the players did not have a stable father figure in their life. For many, the coaches were the only consistent male figures in their lives.” The film pans from steady Coach Gilbert, who doubles as a cop, to an upbeat “cheerleading coach” to bright pony-tailed females waving poms. The boys’ loyal homecoming dates are bright stars in a few scenes although any of their offstage dramas are not indicated; still they’re all part of the glue.

Dylan, greeted by a ton of applause after a recent screening that took place at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, fielded questions. He admitted to watching the film “twenty times”, and enjoying how the story evolved even though the sound of his own voice grated on him. When asked about appearing so natural in front of the camera, he explained that becoming fast friends with Davy and Andrew helped. Finding out that his teammates often faced insurmountable challenges troubled him, but also strengthened his core relationships. And even though those epiphanies weren’t discussed onscreen, the camera captured the emotional essence and natural progression of this growth. Cohn explains, “The cameras really became invisible. Many of the players have commented, after watching the film, that they even forgot we were filming during many scenes in the film.”

The primarily blues-rock 18-track score was mostly composed by Ann Arbor, Michigan musicians, Bobby Emmett ( Shooter Jennings Band, B3, The Sights) and Patrick Keeler. The duo established short, catchy themes using Hammond B3, guitar, tambourine and wah. From the throbbing urban blues of ‘Columbus Game’ to the layered-with-rhythm ‘The Firetruck’ to Emmett’s Kinks-like ‘Shadows of Love’; and a bunch of other well-placed, sometimes surreal themes that transported central character Rusty along at full throttle, they brought a grand burst of immediacy to the film. Singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate’s atmospheric ‘The Real World’ was bittersweet perfect. Thankfully, the music never disrupted the conversations or rambled for no particular reason; a common failing in other DIY documentaries.

But then Rothbart chooses his musicians well. He also directed a documentary about Chicago’s own punk group Rise Against, which chronicled their 2006 Warped Tour. Lead singer, Tim Mcllrath, showed up to greet the directors and shake hands with Dylan. That documentary featured in-depth conversations between the band members and their love interests, as well as comical insights about industry ethos.

'Medora' has already received critical acclaim at SXSW and will be featured on an upcoming PBS episode shortly. The buzz attracted American actor Stanley Tucci, who serves as co-producer and in the following weeks, Dylan, Cohn and Rothbart will continue to plug the film, selling T-shirts and DVDs to support Medora’s home team.

It’s rare to find a pre-holiday film that moves us so completely without resorting to gimmickry and formula and that takes the time to explore its characters so generously. The Hornets, happily, discovered the art of winning but also the spirit of giving back.

The fact that the community let us in on their missteps and tribulations is the true miracle, however. Without smoke, mirrors or even the promise of a spanking new court, they spoke the truth. Medora, you rock.







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