Gasparilla International Film Festival: Wrestle (2018) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Directors Suzannah Herbert’s and Lauren Belfer’s film, Wrestle (2018), is a compelling documentary about four high school wrestlers and their coach. Coach Chris Scribner has built his time at J.O. Johnson High School in Huntsville, Alabama. His wrestlers have troubled home lives, attend a school that has failed the state assessment, and is generally not respected by the other wrestling teams across the state. However, “Scrib” has built a respectable program, and has potentially helped these students find a purpose in their troubled world, which could open their world up dramatically if they can stay focused and out of trouble.

Wrestle puts you in a headlock and refuses to let go

Of the four students, Jamario Rowe seems to take the center stage of the overall narrative constructed. The film opens with the guys carrying another wrestler on their back while running up a steep hill next to a baseball diamond. Rowe is spent by the time he makes it up there, and the voiceover of Scrib kicks in. The film then cuts to Rowe getting ready to go to school, and seeing the tough living conditions he is currently in. He is a senior and a very talented as a wrestler; however, we also find that Rowe has emotional issues, and a girlfriend that seems to cause a lot of his stress.

Jaquan Rhodes is another wrestler who seems talented, but his laziness and bad work ethic are depicted early on. He needs to make weight for an upcoming meet, and is seen eating a giant burrito. It’s no surprise to anyone when they check his weight the night before that he is 7 lbs. over. The filmmakers then show him trying to cut weight and still not really putting in the effort consistently, so his teammates have to get involved. Jaquan is wearing one of those mostly plastic jumpsuits that helps make you sweat. When he has worked out sufficiently, the amount of sweat that pours out of the suit is not only disgusting, but also a symbol of how much work he must have put in.

Probably the most frustrating story in the film falls to Teague Berres, who tells the camera early that he’s supposed to be on four different medications to help with his behavior and attention, but he doesn’t take them. His behavior is constantly an issue, ranging from general disrespect to skipping school so he can buy drugs. There are several moments in the film where people attempt to intervene with varying degrees of effectiveness, but Teague is going to do what Teague wants to do. His talent on the matt is often impacted by his attitude and overall indifference to anything of value, yet you can’t help by root for him and the rest of the team.

The easiest of the four to love has to be Jailen Young. He has his share of home problems, having never known his mother, and with his father being arrested multiple times for dealing drugs. He lives with his grandfather, who appears to be very loving as he provides a stable home for Jailen. Not only is Jailen thriving in his sport, but also academically, often causing his teachers and Scrib to use Jailen as a spokesperson for fundraising opportunities. He’s well spoken, and because he is a young black man with a good head on his shoulders, he represents the potential success stories that any school would want to project.

Unexpectedly – or perhaps due to the location of this school, which was why the filmmakers choice it – there are moments where police get involved with the students focused on in the documentary. Jaquan and Jailen have separate run-ins with the police which result in different outcomes, but are debatably started because of the color of their skin. Jaquan is pulled over because of a “dimmed” brake light and Jailen chose to relieve himself in a public place while returning to the team’s hotel. These happen at different times during the filming of the movie, which reportedly ran over 650 hours, and resulted in varying levels of punishment. Still, it shows the world that the kids are living in, and the concerns that their parents and those that are trying to help them have, which exceeds other expectations have for the young men in the film.

It would be impossible not to compare this film to Hoop Dreams (1994) when looking at how the filmmakers approach the subject matter. Both focus on predominately young black athletes with a very good likelihood of them receiving scholarships for their respective sports. Then both films manage to showcase how the worlds the kids are being brought up in constantly test their mettle and make it increasingly difficult for them not to fall into the traps set by a systematic societal norm. In fact, Rowe, when discussing his girlfriend, claims he is going to “break the cycle”, and, while his words are targeted a specific event in his life, really hits home the shared theme of both of this films; can these students break the cycle they were born into, or will they fall into the same traps?

Final thoughts…

While the young men in the film are still just that – young – the movie does offer some closure by the end as to what happens after this season. As a teacher myself, I find that I am drawn to stories like, this and tend to become very emotionally invested. I truly loved this documentary, and anticipate that I’ll be adding this to my collection in the near future once it becomes available. Add Wrestle to your watchlist, and get ready for one compelling film. This movie earns the Must See rating.

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