Amateur documentaries usually made by friends of their subjects can logically provide a viewer with a direct pipeline into the psyches of everyone involved on both sides of the camera. These docs were most likely made to simply get a story out or, even simpler, to justify the existences of their subjects—and while they’re usually concerned with people other than the filmmaker, they generally strike one as being intensely autobiographical. Watching Fake It So Real, Robert Greene’s film about an amateur wrestling outfit in Lincolnton, North Carolina, reminded me of Billy Ray’s doc Total Badass, which presented in direct, unadorned terms the misadventures of a reckless, self-delusional burnout. That film was artless, but its conflicted, unpolished empathy with its subject made it a troubling and occasionally revealing experience, perhaps partially by accident.
Fake It So Real has been made with considerable more polish than other do-it-yourself docs such as Total Badass, but the sensibility is similar. Greene favors a close-cropped image that normally fails to provide the viewer with his bearings, which is apropos to the story of a group of amateur wrestlers who continually risk considerable injury for a few moments of fleeting glory one night a week. As one wrestler says, “About the best we can hope for is 20 bucks, a hotdog, and a pat on the ass.” These guys, comprised mostly of clearly disenfranchised white men in their 20s and 30s, are haunted by a number of mostly typical doubts and disappointments, but the real elephant in the room is the knowledge, in their heart of hearts, that this passion of theirs will get them nowhere, and will only eat up their time and whatever physical acumen they have left.
Actually, this perception of failure isn’t truly an elephant, as the wrestlers—who perform each week in a small venue that looks to be a converted gym—continually regale Greene with the absurdity of what they’re doing. Open admission is usually the most insidious form of denial, of course, just ask any recovering alcoholic or drug addict, but you still sort of marvel at the men’s openness with themselves and one another, an openness made possible by the demands of partially feigned physical combat.
These wrestlers have a number of striking similarities that can be boiled down to one true commonality: They all felt like freaks. They still do, but that freakiness has been, with the wrestling, defined on their terms. A number of the men have physical problems, particularly Chris Solar, who nearly died at birth from a complicated defect that also resulted in no belly button. (Solar is also Greene’s cousin, and the filmmaker’s hero worship is clear.) Two of the wrestlers, due probably to the delicacy of their eyes and voices and perhaps overall demeanor, are widely suspected to be gay—an issue with which the film is quite unresolved. There’s quite a bit of homophobia here, but Greene ultimately, I believe, reveals most of it to be panic caused by the men’s dependency upon one another. (The men also occasionally, and contradictorily, call each other “gay” as a compliment or at least a means of reaching out to one another.)
Green portrays these men, who are generally either unemployed or working thankless grunt jobs, with a tenderness that’s moving regardless of whether you’d like to personally keep their company. And while this immediate, committed, defiantly partial approach causes problems such as the aforementioned homophobia, and the even more pronounced and troubling racism that’s inherent in the jingoistic datedness of the wrestling stories themselves, Greene taps at rootless white anger without glorifying it or condescending to it. That is a quiet victory. This well structured film is often tough to take, but it honors its own wounded integrity.