AN AMERICAN SPORTS STORY…THE RIVALS - Smithsonian ChannelSeptember 14, 2010


Smithsonian Channel

On Demand Weekly provides new movie reviews of hot movies on demand from the POV of watching from the comfort of your home. Today’s review: AN AMERICAN SPORTS STORY...THE RIVALS.
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Watching AN AMERICAN SPORTS STORY...THE RIVALS, the new truth-trumps-fiction documentary making its premiere on The Smithsonian Channel, I couldn’t get Napoleon Dynamite’s forlorn Uncle Rico out of my head. It was nearly impossible for me not to superimpose Uncle Rico’s unabashed pining for his lost glory days onto some of the high school football stars of THE RIVALS. Their future would be his. No matter how hard I tried, I kept hearing Uncle Rico lament, “Ohhhh, man I wish I could go back in time. I'd take state.”

That doesn’t mean AN AMERICAN SPORTS STORY... THE RIVALS is a bad or goofy movie. In fact that’s where any similarities end. And if you haven’t seen NAPOLEON DYNAMITE,  “Gosh!!!!!”




THE RIVALS is a classic story of the “Haves” versus the “Have Nots” with a predictable twist. The “Haves” are the underdogs on the gridiron. Off the field, it’s a microcosmic look at how the great recession continues to widen the gulf between Americans. (Full disclosure: this was shot before the big market crash.)

The only thing these two high schools and their communities have in common is football. The “Have Nots” come from the blue-collar mill town of Rumford, Maine, where the main employer withers on the vine threatening a complete economic collapse. The “Haves” reside in the comfortable enclave of Cape Elizabeth, where doctors, lawyers and bankers give their kids every opportunity imaginable. The “Haves” have everything they could ask for except a state football championship. The “Have Nots” have that, if nothing else.


We’re told over and over that the kids from Rumford only have football, and winning state may be their one and only shining moment. It gets a little preachy – and slightly suspect –when we actually meet some graduates who seem to have been prodded into saying as much. (Cue Uncle Rico).



As you might have figured out, making it to the state championship boils down to a contentious match-up between these two teams. The football action is merely an engaging backdrop with a ticking clock that motivates a fast-paced plot line. It’s fun to watch, but the “clash of cultures” gets most interesting when the filmmakers take us out of bounds and into the lives and homes of the players and coaches.

The themes of understanding, respect and brotherhood come to life in unpredictable ways off the gridiron. Characters we assume are self-righteous and pompous prove us wrong. When a Cape dad, who I initially believed to be a haughty natterer, emotes, “Anyone anywhere can make themselves the best they can be,” he wasn’t just speaking to his kid. He was talking to me, the kids in Rumford, even Uncle Rico.



These shifts in sympathies, not often seen in documentaries, make THE RIVALS more than a football movie. The shorter title, THE RIVALS, is how the film should be billed – drop the prefix AN AMERICAN SPORTS STORY.  It’s so much more.

- John Werner

John Werner

John Werner is a screenwriter who has written several action flicks for SY FY Channel. He also directs, produces and edits documentaries and TV specials.


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