Judge Chris Claro got advice on this review from his football-playing son: always wear a cup.
In these towns, football is the Maine event.
Since the beginning of time, it seems, the South has been a breeding ground for high school football players. The early lives of some of the NFL's best players began in Louisiana, Texas or Alabama: Brett Favre, the Manning brothers, Drew Brees, to name a few. However, part of the nation has always gone unnoticed for its production of athletic talent. In nearly another world, up north in New England, high school sports are a way of life, and football is no exception. The Rivals focuses on two high schools in the oft-forgotten state of Maine: Mountain Valley High School in blue-collar Rumford, and Cape Elizabeth High School in moneyed Cape Elizabeth.
Director Kirk Wolfinger paints a divergent picture. Rumford is an economically troubled yet lively mill town. Cape Elizabeth is what many would think of as a typical New England town—privileged and poised, full of doctors and lawyers.
The extreme differences between the two schools go even further, to the world of sports. Mountain Valley's team, led by veteran coach Jim Aylward, has a history of winning. Cape Elizabeth's program, however, was formed just two years prior to production, and headed by the inexperienced Aaron Filieo.
The film depicts the roots of their rivalry, their first face-off, from which Mountain Valley emerges victorious. The following season is thoroughly documented, along with the stories of players like Mountain Valley's Dean McCrillis, an aspiring artist anticipating college and Cape's Jimmy Bump. While there is no actual bad blood between the two schools, the film shows some strong emotion against the enemy from both players and fans.
While Wolfinger's film doesn't break any new ground as a documentary, he does convey the distance and the dichotomy between the two communities, one comfortable and one struggling. Anyone familiar with Friday Night Lights will know this story all too well: the two towns are the spitting image of East and West Dillon. Even the players show some similarities to their TV counterparts: Mountain Valley TE Dean McCrillis and Dillon QB Matt Saracen both show a love of art, and Cape QB Jimmy Bump leads the same privileged life as the other Dillon QB J.D. McCoy.
With that in mind, the documentary seems almost scripted. The games contain too many "storybook" plays to seem believable and authentic. Despite that, the local feel is genuine and shows viewers why high school football remains the stuff of both fact and fiction.
The simplicity of Wolfiger's shooting style is reinforced by the unadorned DVD from Infinity. The transfer of the film, which originally aired on the Smithsonian Network, is fine, with the sharp contrast and team colors well-served. The audio is serviceable, with clear distinction among voices and a good balance of crowd noise to action. Though a follow-up on the two teams would have made a nice bonus feature, there are no extras.
As a study of the intensity that goes into everything before they ignite the light on Friday night, The Rivals gets it right. The clash of cultures and classes on which it focuses gives the film a spine that makes it about more than just football.
The call on the field stands. Not guilty.
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