For anyone who’s ever suspected that something sinister lurks behind the rah-rah vehemence of high school football, Kenneth A. Carlson’s Go Tigers! offers cinematic validation. This sly, sobering doc exposes the grievously fucked-up priorities surrounding the sport in a small town with little else on which to hang its hopes.
Carlson returned to his hometown of Massillon, Ohio (population 33,000), to chronicle the 106th season of its high school football team, the Tigers. Massillon lives and breathes football (a local funeral parlor even offers a casket adorned with Tigers baubles), and the pressures on the current batch of players to live up to past glories are enormous. Complicating matters is a pending vote on a school tax levy that will determine the future of Massillon High’s teetering academic programs. (Shifting funds from the bloated sports budget is out of the question, naturally.) The film focuses on three senior players—Dave Irwin, Ellery Moore, and Danny Studer—as they cope with rabidly uninspiring coaches, looming ACTs, and a community that demands victory at all costs. The boys exhibit a remarkably healthy skepticism of the town’s gung-ho tyranny even if they can’t quite escape its grip, and set their sights instead on getting through the season and out of Massillon as quickly as possible (even though, early in the film, each claims he’ll never leave).
Ken Carlson used to produce Fox television’s America’s Most Wanted and currently helms NBC’s reality pressure-cooker Lost, and his background shows. He’s so adept at narrative tension that even football haters may find themselves fretting over the Tigers’ fate. Unfortunately, he also reveals a fondness for distracting visual non sequiturs. The worst by far is a literally vomitous scene at a Massillon kegger, where the contents of a kid’s beer-gorged stomach turn out to be no more of a revelation than watching teenagers booze it up and fondle each other in their cars. Potentially compelling material gets overlooked in the process, including a deeper exploration of the town’s obvious racial divide, and you begin to wonder if everything in Massillon is as subsumed by football as the movie insists. In his own way, Carlson seems as obsessed with the game as his fellow townspeople. Yet despite these shortcomings, Go Tigers! deftly treads the line between condemnation and compassion. In the end, Carlson identifies Massillon’s misguided preoccupation with and bastardization of football as a desperate end-run around the sense of futility that haunts modern life.
A different kind of hopelessness pervades Geoff Cunningham’s painfully earnest Rocky Road. This perky would-be consciousness-raiser dilutes a potentially interesting subject—interracial marriage—with half-baked platitudes, self-conscious acting, and a plot trite enough to be rejected by the PAX channel. Based on Cunningham’s own marriage to actress Nicole Smith, who stars, Rocky Road succeeds only in making the 34-year-old Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner seem fresh and relevant.