Judge David Johnson isn't a nimrod. He's a lightning rod—for awesomeness.
From the Sundance Channel comes a unique documentary series that takes a broad look at the life and times of Watersmeet, Michigan, a small township in the colder-than-a-witch's-left-teat Upper Peninsula, where a warm day is called when the thermometer breaks 0 degrees.
The running narrative through the series is the Watersmeet Nimrod basketball team, the town's vaunted high-school squad that landed a title the previous season. Under the steadying hand of head coach George Peterson III, who coaches his son, George, representing another installment in the UP Peterson basketball legacy. The Nimrod goal this year: first place in the Porcupine Mountain Conference and another title.
But executive producer Brett Morgen is interested in far more than basketball. He's looking to capture what he calls "the last frontier," this recluse community that is immune to the encroaching of the typical mainstream American pop culture—as Morgen states, the kids don't watch TV, there is no McDonald's, so life in Watersmeet is far different than life in L.A. or New York City or even Utica.
The Nimrods' quest for full-court superstardom acts as a jumping-off point for Morgen to train his lens on the drama that's happening on the periphery: the Petersons' father-son/coach-player dynamic, which sometimes conflicts, Native American relations, teen pregnancy, boyhood angst that turns into borderline felony assault on the court, the sale and development of a beloved lake that offers primo ice-fishing, boy trouble, girl trouble, bad grades, getting into college, teenage insecurity in matters of the heart and pig-killing.
Oh, the pig-killing. No doubt you'll be aware that you're watching a window into a slightly alien world when the first episode wraps with a scene of one of the kids putting a pistol to a pig's head and squeezing the trigger. In that same episode a father and son have a heart-to-heart while flaying and cutting out chunks of a dead deer. And there's much more buck-filleting to follow as well a recreational shotgun shooting and flaming arrow firing. Granted, that all sounds pretty awesome to me, but to any urbanites watching it may seem out-of-the-ordinary. And in terms of what reality television is known for showing—nubile 20-somethings frolicking, drunk, in hot tubs, etc.—Nimrod Nation is out-of-the-ordinary, ironically, because of its small-town ordinariness. To Morgen's credit it never once feels likes he's exploiting these UP quirks. He's not judging the ethical treatment of deer or pigs or making a statement that these backwards Upies need to subscribe to The New Republic to remedy their hick ways. I didn't sense a particular narrative he was pushing—in my eyes, the sign of an adroit piece of documentary filmmaking.
As interesting as the non-basketball stuff is, Nimrod Nation is still a sports series, and it's a great one. Following the Nimrods' quest for basketball success is compelling television and the basketball games are filmed with energy. There's even a montage! The eight episodes build to the regional championship, which takes up pretty much the entire final show—which doesn't end the way you may be expecting.
Overall: good stuff and highly recommended for fans of top-shelf documentary filmmaking (really, the depth and breadth of Morgen's camera-wielding is remarkable) and/or true sports stories.
The two-disc set is no-frills: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 2.0 stereo and an interview with Morgen as the only extra.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arts Alliance America
• Director Interview
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