Fathers of Football
2018, NR, 87 min. Directed by Bradley Beesley.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., April 26, 2019
The latest documentary from the Austin-based, Flaming Lips-affiliated, Okie-oddball filmmaker Bradley Beesley (Slacker 2011, Christmas on Mars) has all the creative drive of a term paper written the night before it’s due. It takes as its subject high school football and sets up in Wagoner, Okla., a “blue-collar” (that old euphemism for “poor”) town that shuts down on Friday nights so everyone can attend the games. Most of the kids who play on the team have spotty home situations, and, as one mother puts it, “Hey, it’s a better pastime than meth.” And she’s kinda right, because while football takes a toll on the body in different ways, I’m pretty sure meth never helped anyone get into college. The main players featured here are Dale Condict, the head coach; his son Austin, who is diagnosed with testicular cancer; A.J. Freeth, the team’s star player despite a deadbeat dad and bad grades; and Chris Murray, a junior with extremely vague “disciplinary issues.” The film moves through one season, cutting from locker room pep talks and glimpses inside the homes of the players to talking head interviews with school staff members and footage from each game punctuated – thankfully! – with the score at the end. These Wagoner Bulldogs, though scrappy, are certainly no underdogs; their winning streak holds a place in Oklahoma high school football history. (Clear eyes and full hearts aside, is there anything more boring than a team that can’t lose?)
The film does showcase some strong imagery: proud mamas standing on the sidelines, a llama casually hanging out in a front yard, the military chants and drill sergeant aggression of the assistant coach. But the cohesion of this cohort is unconvincing, no matter how many times the supporting characters drop the word “family.” The message that Beesley seems so desperate to convey is that there’s a softer side to football culture (sometimes there’s crying!), and it can temper the difficulties of a shitty home life. But the concept of football-scholarship-as-meal-ticket is pretty well understood, and any decent piece of art should transcend its immediate surroundings. The closest the film ever comes to any wider social relevancy is in showing a brief news clip in which the anchors deem 2015 the deadliest year in high school football (seven deaths in seven weeks) before completely sidestepping the issue as Dale mutters some glory-days story about concussions and ammonia strips and getting right back out on the field. I was hoping the film would ask some difficult questions, but it’s as innocuous as a home movie.
For an interview with director Bradley Beesley, read On the Sidelines With New Documentary Fathers of Football," April 26.