Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 13th, 2023
Lucha: A Wrestling Tale (Marco Ricci, 2024) 3½ out of 4 stars.
In documentary cinema, there is a grand tradition of competition films, which follow teams or individuals on the road to transformational success, be it in sports or other arenas. Political-campaign movies are not dissimilar in their trajectories. Quite often, we follow the protagonist(s) through obstacles and opportunities until some of them win. Those who lose receive our sympathy, but we root for victory.
What makes Lucha: A Wrestling Tale, from director Marco Ricci (The Reconstruction of Asa Carter), work so well is its primary emphasis on the journey, via which most everyone involved achieves meaningful results. The place is Taft High School in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood. The time is just before COVID. The people involved are the members and coaches of the girls’ wrestling team. All inspire with their grit and determination.
Taft is not a wealthy school. The girls practice in the cafeteria, themselves laying down the mats and taping them together. Many come from poverty, struggling to balance homework, home life, afterschool jobs, and other circumstances that make it hard to focus on any of that, much less athletics. And yet the team grounds them, giving much-needed confidence and the comforting camaraderie of their peers.
And of their coaches, Josh Lee and Robert Carrillo. These two men, later joined by a younger woman assistant coach, dedicate themselves to the task of training their wrestlers to be the best they can be. This might mean winning, but it’s more about learning to channel teenage energy into productive, constructive pursuits. Still, a win here and there can certainly help with that.
There are many who stand out, but the three whose dramatic arcs we most closely follow are Alba, Nyasia, and Shirley. The wiry Alba is a recent arrival to the United States, learning English along with everything else, and but a first-year, so has long-term prospects for growth. Nyasia is a heavyweight, strong and potentially dominant in her group but in need of mentorship to help her get the grades she needs to stay on the team. Finally, Shirley—in between the other two in weight class—has high hopes to get a much-needed wrestling scholarship for college, but must first and foremost deal with a homelessness problem after her mother kicks her out.
All the stories are compelling. Emotions run high, and the wrestler shed both sweat and tears (as do the coaches). Much to our delight, Taft moves up in the rankings, challenging more established (and better-funded) programs. The matches are gripping to watch, but even though we want these girls to beat their opponents, we especially want them to conquer their own personal demons. This tale has a lot of muscle, and even more heart.
[Lucha: A Wrestling Tale just had its world premiere at DOC NYC, where I saw the film with director and subjects present.]