On the Mat is nothing less than a documentarian’s dream. As an omnipresent fly on the wall during the a 2010-2011 Washington State high school wrestling season, filmmaker Fredric Golding couldn’t have wished for more dramatic highs and lows than if he’d written a fictional high-stakes sports drama himself. It’s no wonder that this engaging film took Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Online Feature Award. (Note: Rather than decided by an appointed jury, this particular honor is awarded by online viewers. Think “People’s Choice” meets film fest.)
Narrated by onetime Lake Stevens High School wrestler, actor Chris Pratt (The Five-Year Engagement, Moneyball) — doing double duty as the film’s executive producer — is the perfect tour guide. Between his own high school history, having taken fifth place at the state level in 1997, his relationship with wrestling coach Brent Barnes and his ease around the sport as well as the current crop of youthful wrestlers, it’s hard to imagine this documentary without Pratt’s warmth and empathy.
The film opens with a loquacious Pratt on camera, comparing the actor’s hard road of rejection to the brutal sport of wrestling … suggesting that actors might do themselves a favor by toughening up on a mat. We then get a brief preview of the personalities and scenes that we’ll see in greater detail as we experience the five months of the school’s wrestling season, replete with riveting twists and turns. Granted, the decision to focus on this particular school wasn’t exactly a shot in the dark: Lake Stevens High has won seven out of the last ten state championships. As Pratt explains: “Wrestling is to Lake Stevens, Washington … like football is to Midland, Texas.”
Reminiscent of the 2008 high school basketball documentary Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, the movie takes quick snapshots of all of the principal team members, visiting their homes and families, giving us a sense of what particular events might have led to who they are today. Such as the dyslexic, small-framed Jesse, who can’t believe that at a mere 103 pounds, he’s considered a high school jock; or the rebellious Steven, the best athlete on the team but saddled by failing grades; or the sorrowful Jack, haunted by the death of his kid brother. And let’s not forget Coach Barnes, a blend of father figure, psychologist, boot camp sergeant, tutor and priest.
Other than the drama of cheering for these boys now that we’ve come to know them, the documentary reveals some of the more arcane rules of the sport itself. Such as “cutting weight,” in which growing teens are forced to keep their weight extraordinarily low in order to wrestle in a particular class. There’s much discussion on the subject, with one wrestler stating that for that day, he’d ingested two teaspoons of water and one piece of candy. Unbelievably draconian, this practice affects each and every team member, forcing the boys to endure intense exercise, coupled with starvation and dehydration, until the official weigh-in on the day of the match. And yet, once they’ve been weighed in, they’re allowed a period of two hours in which they can eat and replenish their systems. Begging the question: if they’re allowed to get their weight back up before the match, what’s the point of this kind of physical abuse?
Another fascinating, yet still punishing concept: Even when a wrestler loses his individual match, he’s expected to go right back into the circle to fight in the consolation bracket in order to accrue points for his team. Narrator Pratt is right; this is a kind of toughness that is mind-boggling.
At times, when On the Mat hones in on young wrestlers, their swagger all but gone as they collapse in dark corners with their faces awash in tears, we are reminded that after all is said and done, these are just kids. Boys who have sacrificed so much, who are brave, strong, competitive and obstinate … yet still just a few years older than when they first learned how to ride a bike.
And if they lose, we may find ourselves a bit ashamed of our own disappointment. After all, doesn’t every sports-themed film, every national and hometown contest, every worldwide Olympics insist that we wildly cheer on our team? Isn’t it part of the American Dream to win at all costs? Right. Sometimes the cost just isn’t worth it.
Rating on a scale of 5 sold-out shows of WrestleMania: 4.5
Written and Directed by: Fredric Golding
Featuring: Chris Pratt, Coach Brent Barnes, Assistant Coach Andy Knutson, and the 2010-2011 Lake Stevens High School Wrestling Team
Running Time: 87 minutes