In Medora, Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart treat an under-funded high school basketball team in Indiana as a prism through which to view some of the insurmountable problems small-town America faces today. The filmmakers focus, sometimes uncomfortably, on the players’ troubling lives outside the court as much as their battles on it, a template borrowed from Hoop Dreams. Like the black inner-city kids featured in Steve James’s landmark documentary, these white Midwestern teens must deal with absent parents, substance abuse in their families, poverty, and a general lack of life opportunities.
But while Hoop Dreams’s subjects were driven by dreams of professional, Nike-sponsored basketball glory, the kids of Medora High School have no such aspirations; for them, their basketball team simply represents a substitute for family, or at the very least gives them something to do. The film feels as if it set out to be an inspirational tale about an underdog team beating the odds, but instead of giving color to the story, Cohn and Rothbart presented it with black-and-white ideas. Where Hoop Dreams revealed a story arc so astonishing that, as Stuart Klawans wrote, only God could have written it, Medora only seems to confirm negative stereotypes about small-town life.
There’s a scene about midway through where people are seen watching a speech by Barack Obama about a changing nation and economy, and the film is nearly an illustration of the president’s words: His musings about “shuttered windows” and “vacant storefronts” are literally visualized throughout, and the picture the president paints of a world in which dependable jobs at local factories have come and gone is a sentiment strongly shared by the film (which also features some nostalgically placed archival photos of Medora in better days). Unfortunately for the town’s populace, it doesn’t appear as if they have any way to “meet the demands of a new age,” as Obama’s speech puts it. Indeed, the film’s epilogue confirms that most of these boys haven’t moved on to bigger and better things since graduating high school. But a similar line could be said about the film, which fixates on the material and human decay of Medora without ever moving on to meaningful commentary.