The ragged underdogs of the basketball team fit nicely into Medora as a whole. Cohn and Rothbart put archival footage from Medora summer festivals and daily life over the credits, full of Americana and small town iconography, but by the time the title card has come up, the transition into post-industrial decrepitude is complete. Storefronts have boarded up, and homes are falling apart. Cohn and Rothbart wisely expand the film from the basketball team and get plenty of citizens on camera who provide more context and history of the area. A liquor store clerk asked to describe the town sums it up in one word: 'closed.' The assistant coach, who works for a limestone company a few towns over, warmly describes the pride his work gives him, a feeling Medorans are increasingly only able to find if they leave. To a person, everyone is deadset against consolidation, despite the school board being a quarter million dollars in the red. Losing the school would mean closing the book on a lot of history and also losing their kids to the school bus, turning Medora into a Midwestern Children of Men.
As the film continues, Cohn and Rothbart cobble together an appealing and rousing narrative out of hundreds of hours of footage. As a volunteer basketball coach, I can say there are few things more satisfying than seeing a player improve over the course of a season, and Coach Gilbert is entitled to that satisfaction. His players gain confidence and put in the work. The editing as the season goes on is exceptional, with an evocative shot of a solo kid practicing on a snow-covered court against a flat expanse that goes on for miles transitioning into the kid executing the same plays for his team, effectively communicating all that is great about coaching in a handful of frames. As the games get closer, the level of apprehension and rooting interest skyrockets, with the viewer getting as invested in the result as the Medora denizens. Away from basketball, the Hornets toy with what to do after their looming graduation dates, flirting with the military or trade school or college or straight into the work force. Two of the main players experience tentative family reunions, with each kid leaning towards optimism in the face of absence or addiction but also grappling with the memory of so many earlier failed opportunities. The only gap is the choice to make Medora an oddly sexless documentary. If part of the film's objective is to determine how these bored and unsupervised teens can find themselves in a cycle of poverty as they transition towards adulthood, a key facet is wholly omitted.
For this Hoosier, raised in rural conditions, Medora is a can't miss film. Away from the poverty, which was thankfully irrelevant to my childhood, there are so many small moments that tickle the brain's nostalgia centers. When that familiarity is combined with a coherent and graceful depiction of a dying community, Medora takes on a new resonance, especially in relation to the recently-read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, itself a chronicle of white lower-class struggle. Vance's autobiography and the kids of Medora share a lot in common, and for those curious about the mental state of the country, both are essential. A-