There are no storytelling devices in film less interesting than static shots of talking heads delivering head-on the information, or even the thesis, that a documentary hopes to impart to you. There are exceptions to every rule, of course (such as the brilliant Tyson, which cannily used its subject’s iconic sing-song voice to probe deeper into him), but the documentaries that tend to linger in the mind are those that reveal their subjects physically, that exploit the advantages of the medium to bring us far closer to something than we ever imagined. The work of the Maysles brothers frequently accomplishes this task, and earlier this year the marvelous Circo took us deep into a tightknit family of low-budget circus operators primarily through a series of evocative, beautiful long shots that captured an unusual lifestyle with refreshing empathy and imagination.
Born and Bred, however, bungles a promising subject with an overreliance on suspiciously on-the-nose, thesis-spouting talking heads. The documentary, which follows a number of young Latino boxers and trainers in Los Angeles, barely allows us to see the obvious draw of the subject matter: the children actually boxing. The boxers, at times, are strikingly fast and powerful—poignantly refuting many shopworn stereotypes of the poor, of immigrants, and of boxing in general. But Born and Bred never establishes a compelling rhythm; it’s scattered and chopped up when it should be concise and elegant. Director Justin Frimmer isn’t up to capturing this strikingly everyday physical poetry.
The doc shortchanges its subject in a number of other ways as well; namely, it never entirely decides what its subject actually is. Born and Bred primarily concerns twin teenagers Oscar and Javier Molina and their drive, under the intense tutelage of trainer Robert Luna, to become professional boxers. That story, a nearly archetypal illustration of the immigrant struggle to carve out a life that’s far below living conditions many middle-class Americans would even deign to consider accepting, could be suggestive, simply told, and effective. But Frimmer, unfortunately, shoves the immigration subtext in our faces with statistics about the swelling Latino populations in L.A., the 2006 protests, and so forth, while occasionally (and jarringly) cutting away to other boxers for a suggestion of a broader story that never entirely materializes. We’re never allowed to grasp Oscar and Javier as individuals, and so the urgency of the story is reduced to the sort of civics lesson you’d go out of your way to miss.
Frimmer also misses a troubling potential irony: that these young men are trading one form of oppression and control for another in the hopes of trumping odds that aren’t much more favorable than those of a typical Mexican hoping to work in a dingy chain restaurant. A trainer at one point brags about making his young men sign contracts promising to have no girlfriends until they’re out of their teens, and, while the motivation is an understandable attempt to reign the potential bad boys in, it also has an unsettling undercurrent of manipulation. These young men devote their entire lives yielding to older men who once had their own glories dashed, obsessively training and beating one another up. The lifestyle, beyond debate, trumps the potential street life that everyone is so consciously trying to avoid, but Frimmer misses a disturbing punchline, an ambiguity, of boxing: that “freedom” for these men is a life of performing in what, for many of them, barring the exceptional success stories, is a glorified sideshow that fleetingly assures them of a larger purpose to their life while also briefly affirming their masculinity.
If Born and Bred had caught the ironic beauty of boxing, and questioned the sadly stacked odds of success while maintaining empathy, then the film might have been a hauntingly poetic work that established a brutal sport as a great, sad equalizer among the lower class. That sentiment is often expressed in Born and Bred, but you never truly feel it. Oscar and Javier, as well as a far more compelling young boxer named Victor, are real people who aren’t quite allowed to be real to us.