LA Film Fest Review: In Football We Trust, by David Bax
This pull quote won’t fit on a poster or anything but what Hoop Dreams did for poor, black, basketball playing teens from the south side of Chicago, Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn’s In Football We Trust does for poor, Polynesian-American, football playing, Mormon teens from Utah. With twice the number of subjects and at half the running time, this new documentary may not quite achieve the air of epic tragedy of Steve James’ masterpiece but it is a film that is moving and potently human nonetheless.
In Football We Trust follows four young men – heavily recruited Harvey Langi, devoutly religious Fihi Kaufusi and brothers Leva and Vita Bloomfield, whose family is as associated with criminal gang activity as it is with football – during the latter part of their high school careers and after graduation. Suburban Utah may not, at first glance, seem to offer all the possibilities of dramatic friction as inner city Chicago but, as Vainuku and Cohn prove, life for poor minorities is hard all over and the pressure on the athletically talented within that sphere is immense.
In Football We Trust’s most pressing concern is with the question of identity via affiliation. To fit in somewhere is the desire of most teenagers. That can only be intensified when the kids in question are non-whites in one of the whitest states in America (ranked number eight according to the census). Off the field, the film compares the lives of Langi and Kaufusi – mostly consumed with activities related to their Mormon faith – with those of the Bloomfields, who are surrounded by extended family and family friends who revolve in and out of prison. Eventually, the brothers take up even more of the film as their options involve higher stakes. As interviewee Troy Polamalu observes, “Gangs or football. Both are violent and both are camaraderie.” Vainuku and Cohn find dramatic heft in the question of which side these two young men will choose, assuming the choice isn’t made for them.
It isn’t all so heavy, though. As in the best slice of life documentaries, plenty of room is found for small moments of human levity. One of the boys insists to his mother that he’s not going to get dressed up just because some family is coming over to watch him open up a letter from the church. In the next shot, he’s sporting a collared shirt and tie.
That bit of comedy speaks to the most important affiliation for all four of these boys, that of their families. Whether bound for a full athletic scholarship, a Mormon mission or the penitentiary, their support system and their identities are wholly wrapped up in their very large, extended families. We see the strength that comes from that but also the terrible pressure. A clear-eyed and razor sharp documentary, In Football We Trust finds the pathos in all of it.