For all the hard-knock headlines the NFL has faced lately, playing in the pros remains a dream career for many young men — including the teen quartet chronicled in the verite doc “In Football We Trust.” Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn’s directorial debut focuses on a specific subculture drawn to the game: Polynesian-Americans, who — per opening titles — are 28 times more likely to play in the NFL than any other ethnic group. Engaging but perhaps more limited in its arc than the filmmakers might have hoped, the produced-for-public-television pic was acquired pre-Sundance by Relativity Sports, but will feel most at home on the smallscreen.
Docs rarely get more specific than this: Polynesian teens (two of them Mormon) playing high-school football in the Salt Lake City region. That provides the filmmakers a unique springboard, even if the individual sagas combine for something more akin to an intriguing novella than the full-blown great American epic of verite sports docs, Steve James’ 1994 landmark “Hoop Dreams.”
The most dramatically fruitful of the interwoven stories comes from brothers Leva and Vita Bloomfield, who both play for the same high school and hail from a family somewhat infamous in the area for their ties to a local gang, the Regulators. Their father, Fua, was also a gifted player in his prime before seeing his own dreams end at the college level due to “personal problems.” The boisterous boys talk about hoping to prove people’s preconceptions of their family wrong, but actions speak louder than words and their sibling bond is soon compromised by legal entanglements.
Dynamic Fihi Kaufusi addresses the appeal of football for Tongan natives, and reflects on a year spent with his father on the island homeland. Opportunities are slim, and even a modest life in America — living in a crowded house with his devout Mormon aunt who insists her wards get to church on time every week — looks luxurious in comparison. He struggles, however, with strict religious teachings when it comes to his affections for sweetly devoted g.f., Amanda.
Golden boy Harvey Langi appears to have the best prospects at a NFL career, having already been featured as a hot prospect on ESPN. Colleges line up to woo him, but the pressure Langi feels from having his entire family’s future in his hands is enough to make anyone crack. When a perfectly normal teenage “mistake” makes news, his road to fame and fortune suddenly looks a lot rockier — much to the disappointment of his strong-willed mother, Kalesita.
Vainuku and Cohn gently weave culturally specific moments into the fabric of the film without feeling forced or crassly exotic, and just as deftly handle the subjects of race and prejudice (“People think we’re big Mexicans,” says Kaufusi). They’re interested in the full lives of these young men, and exploring the irresistible promise of climbing the social ladder provided by potential sports stardom.
Brief talking head interviews with Polynesians currently playing in the majors — including Carolina Panthers’ Star Lotulelei and Baltimore Ravens’ Haloti Ngata — shed further light on the goal the teens are chasing (and how hard it is to achieve), but the focus remains squarely on what the filmmakers captured by following their primary subjects.
Without spoiling too much, there’s a something of an anti-climax in the culmination of each of the stories. At the same time, the point at which the directors part ways with each of the subjects lends the film an added poignancy. There are no feelings of failure here. Instead, the pic becomes a reflection on the common experience of readjusting one’s youthful dreams, rather than a triumphant charting of rarefied paths afforded to a chosen few.
Actor Dwayne Johnson, partly of Polynesian descent himself, has expressed interest in lending his support to the film upon release, which is just the kind of boost the modest story needs to reach a wider audience. Tech credits are solid across the board.
Film Review: 'In Football We Trust'
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 24, 2015. Running time: 87 MIN.
(Documentary) An IFWT Prods. presentation of an Idle Wild Films and Independent Television Service co-production in association with Pacific Islanders in Communication. Produced by Erika Cohn. Executive producers, Geralyn Dreyfous, Mark Lipson, Gavin Dougan.
Directed by Tony Vainuku, Erika Cohn. Camera (color, HD), Vainuku; editor, Ericka Concha, William Haugse, Ken Schneider; music, Justin Melland; re-recording mixer, Mark Berger; associate producer, Caroline Nelson.
Leva Bloomfield, Vita Bloomfield, Fihi Kaufusi, Harvey Langi, Kauata Bloomfield, Fua Bloomfield, Kalesita Langi, Amanda Harris, Sam Langi, Star Lotulelei, Haloti Ngata, Troy Polamalu, Vai Sikahema.