If “Hoosiers” is the heartwarming tale of a treasured era of Indiana small-town history long gone, “Medora” is a sobering examination of what remains of many of those towns with its passing.
One of 20 nationwide stops, the documentary by Michigan natives Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart debuted at the Indiana State Museum IMAX last Friday night to a nearly-packed house. It tells the story of the Medora Hornets, a boys’ basketball team from a Southern Indiana school of just 72 kids. More than sports, it is about the difficulties faced by the impoverished people of the once-thriving towns abandoned by industry and forgotten by time.
Norman Dale and Jimmy Chitwood, it ain’t.
One player has a mother is in rehab, so he lives with a teammate. Another doesn’t know his dad, and lives with his grandmother because his mom’s a mess. One is kicked off the team early in the season, a young man who’s currently in jail for trying to rob a Pizza Hut. Another has a learning disability, and despite being accepted to a technical school, he stays home to help on the family farm, thus continuing the familial cycle of not escaping the economic desolation.
One of the more telling quotes in the film comes from a female resident who was asked how she would describe Medora.
“Closed,” she said.
To get the deepest story possible, for eight months, the filmmakers moved to Medora, a dilapidated town of 700 residents. For the 82-minute film, they shot over 600 hours of footage, including player partying and in-home drama. The result is a gripping portrait of a community hanging by a thread.
Medora’s desperate grip on its past includes its fight against school consolidation. Despite a $280,000 deficit, the district refuses to be like the many towns like it, whose bleak futures evaporated completely once their schools shut down.
“They don’t want to consolidate,” Medora schools superintendent Tom Judd said. “They want that individual identity, and to see ‘Medora Hornets’ mean what it meant 10 years ago, and mean the same thing next year.”
“Medora” was filmed during the 2010-11 season, following the Hornets’ 2-40 stretch the previous two years. On the court, it’s about the team’s quest just to win a single contest.
“It gave every game a championship-like intensity,” Rothbart said. “But really, it’s about the kids trying to win at life.”
The Hornets’ coaches are a cop, a preacher and a stone cutter, a combination maybe only possible in Southern Indiana.
“They were some of the heroic figures that we saw down there,” Rothbart said. “Sometimes they were the only consistent male presence in the boys’ lives.”
In the end, in relation to the power of the story, whether the Hornets got that elusive win is irrelevant. While most sports films celebrate some epic achievement, the heart of “Medora” is based not in winning, but the character built in perpetual losing, and under desperate off-court circumstances.
For the filmmakers, while a good box-office take and career-building notoriety will be welcomed, that isn’t how they’ll rate the value of “Medora.”
“I’ll measure success on the experience and relationships,” Cohn said. “We went into this with no expectations, and I think that’s where great art comes from.”
“Medora” runs at the Indiana State Museum IMAX through Dec. 5.
— Follow Westside Flyer sports writer Brent Glasgow on Twitter @BGlasgow37.