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Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
The Bottom Line
A compassionate doc about aspiring Polynesian football players
Sundance (U.S. Documentary Competition)
“Gangs or football? Both are violent and both are camaraderie,” says former USC All-American and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. In its world premiere at Sundance, this sports documentary focuses on the impact that football has on the emerging Polynesian community in the United States.
For the country’s relatively new influx of Samoan and Tongan residents, football presents a pathway to the “American Dream.” As the documentary stresses, the Polynesians come from a warrior culture, and it’s in football that they find a true connection with their heritage. It’s lively and funny and shows the charismatic spirit of people not often portrayed on the big screen.
In this edgy ethnographic insight, Utah-based filmmaker Tony Vainuku focuses on four Polynesian teens who are football stars and dreaming to make it to the “League,” namely the NFL. No mere sports highlight reel, this insightful film focuses on the torturous route that these teenage athletic stars endure. The pressures of scoring touchdowns or making tackles are slight compared to the social and familial pressures they face. In football terms, they are “blitzed” by their large extended families who surround and overwhelm them with the lofty expectations that they will make it big in pro football and then lift the entire family out of relative poverty.
As a filmmaker, Tony Vainuku is a triple threat: He functions as a cultural anthropologist, sociologist and football enthusiast. That’s a lot of game, and, as a final score, this heartfelt documentary is a winner. Deftly mixing sports highlights, teen life, family dynamics and the social services system, Vainuku distills a sympathetic portrait of teenage boys trying to deal with gang violence and daunting family conditions, all the while being touted as family “saviors.” It’s a huge cross to carry, and Vainuku clearly shows that the path to the NFL is more a pipe-dream than a pipeline to college stardom and the NFL for the great majority of these guys.
Vainuku skillfully weaves his story, cutting back and forth from the family and grid-iron life of these boys to the world of big-time NCAA recruiting. Coaches from such collegiate powerhouses as USC and UCLA come for in-home visits, a tradition that goes back to the ‘70s when those programs discovered the prowess of Polynesian athletes like Mosi Tatupu (USC) and Manu Tuiasosopo (UCLA). Not surprisingly, it’s a bit surreal as these glitzy programs dazzle the kids and the family with their generous enticements.
Empathetic and entertaining, In Football We Trust is also commercially versatile. It could run on a sports-cable network, or equally well on an education-based outlet.
Idle Wild Films
Director: Tony Vainuku
Producer/Co-director: Erika Cohen
Executive producers: Geralyn Dreyfous, Mark Lipson, Gavin Dougan
Director of photography: Tony Vainuku
Editors: Ericka Concha, William Haugse, Ken Schneider
Music: Justin Mellan
Interviewees: Leva Bloomfield, Vita Bloomfield, Fihi Kaufusi, Harvey Langi, Kalesita Langi, Sam Langi, Star Lotulelei, Haloti Ngata, Troy Polamalu, Vai Sikahema
87 minutes, no MPAA Rating