Written by: Hannah Tran | February 1st, 2024
Sue Bird: In the Clutch (Sarah Dowland, 2024) 2 out of 5 stars*
If there is any question about whether Seattle Storms point guard Sue Bird is a basketball legend, the Sundance documentary Sue Bird: In the Clutch makes it clear. Sarah Dowland, making her feature directorial debut, creates a solid introduction to Bird’s life on and off the court, following her final year before retirement. It succeeds as an informative guide to one of the WNBA’s most beloved players, going from Bird’s early beginnings to her five gold medals. But despite the film’s best intentions, it never quite digs deep enough to give Bird the cinematic treatment she deserves.
What plagues Dowland’s documentary is its overly conventional approach. The made-for-TV aesthetics of the talking-head interviews and the sloppy editing choices cheapen the overall effect of the movie. The lack of style and perspective makes it difficult for the filmmakers to fully capture the emotional impact of what’s happening onscreen. The basketball footage is a major example of this: it lacks the sense of thrill inherent to the game and a sense of focus on Bird.
Moreover, each segment of Bird’s life comes off like a sanitized bullet-point list of every career milestone. Plus, it feels overly concentrated on her college days and her final year as a pro. There’s almost a complete disregard for the entire middle career that made her a legend. This makes it feel as though certain areas of her life, such as her experience playing in Russia, her coming out as a lesbian, and her devotion to activism are last-minute footnotes. There’s a frustrating amount of potential in these issues that the documentary mentions about racism, sexism, and financial injustice in the WNBA, but the film is held back by its distance from the subject.
Sue Bird: In the Clutch also fails to realize that many of its most touching moments are the ones that take place off the court. The more candid moments shared between Bird and her fiancée, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, are very humanizing and sweet. The anticlimactic ending that ultimately befalls Bird’s final moments as a WNBA player could have been better balanced by giving these more intimate scenes more weight.
For someone like me who doesn’t know much about basketball, last year’s Stephen Curry: Underrated was a surprising standout of the 2023 Sundance Festival. It feels wrong to compare the two, but the contrast in storytelling is glaring. Where Underrated impressed with its sleek style and firm handle on its themes, In the Clutch feels lost. Ironically, perhaps it represents the struggle of the WNBA to be taken as seriously as its male counterpart. At the end of the day, the intentions of the film are admirable, and will hopefully make way for other, better-produced stories of women in sports.
[Sue Bird: In the Clutch just premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.]
*Starting in 2024, all Film Festival Today reviews will now be rated out of 5 stars, rather than the previous 4-star system.