Instead of showing one feature, day three of the Vancover Lift-Off Festival was broken down into three separate shorter films all centering upon a sports theme. The first and best was Longshot: The Brian Upson Story, a simultaneously tragic but life affirming doc made by film students at Rockridge University. The titular subject was a basketball coach who – despite battling the cancer that eventually killed him – led The West Vancouver Highlanders to victory in a provincial tournament in 1982.
What is remarkable about the documentary is that despite its small focus (one man and his high school basketball team) and short running time (51 minutes), it feels big and bombastic emotionally. From watching interviews shot for the film with various talking heads (family, friends, students, fellow coaches), one gets a sense that Upson was a kind man, whose warmth reached far beyond his family to anyone who even passingly knew him. Former players talk about him so passionately, with one even lamenting he didn’t spend more time with the manager.
Meanwhile, the footage from the original game – cited as the “most exciting high school sports event in recent history” – is as nail-biting as any dramatic sports movie. People at the festival screening were making audible sounds of joy everytime The Highlanders scored. It was terrific to see viewers really connecting with a film that wouldn’t play at one’s typical mainstream cinema.
Longshot could have been a maudlin weepie (something the cheesy end-credits music would belong in, the one false note of the doc filled with basketball metaphors). Yet, the game footage, as well as the fact that Upson lived months after doctors told him he wouldn’t in order to see the final makes the documentary feel more like a celebration of the triumph of human spirit. “I believe he willed himself to live those final days” Upson’s wife Paula states – a sentiment that – although sad – leaves the viewer with a hopeful feeling, that emotional strength and sheer force of will can sometimes transcend dire circumstance.
It’s amazing how a film like Longshot – made by a group of students – was the highlight of a night that also featured two other films with noticeably bigger budgets. Yet, what’s even more impressive is that one of these other shorts had backing from The Weinstein Company, information which makes one wonder if it should truly be playing at an indie festival. This was Game, a decent if predictable 17 minute drama about a female teen attempting to hide her gender in order to play for the male basketball team at her school.
Produced by Lexus (meaning one can watch it for free on their Youtube channel), the film has noticably better production values that much of the content at the festival. It benefits from the presence of recognisable character actors like Jamie McShane (Netflix’s Bloodline) and Dominique Columbus (Ray Donovan) and it raises some interesting questions: “How many WMBA players can you name?” the protagonist played by Nicole Williams asks her male coach. Yet, it doesn’t really possess enough charm and ingenuity to rival similar stories made by The Weinsteins of people overcoming adversity – eventually moving to an overly idealised ending that just doesn’t ring true.
Lastly, there was The Honey Badger, a documentary following boxer Daniel Hayes as he prepares for a fight in Mexico. I haven’t much to say about the film because honestly it doesn’t feel much like a film. Hayes on-screen appears charismatic and magnetic. Yet, the direction by Kb Kutz consisting of fast cuts, snippets of inspirational dialogue and shots of graffiti make it feel – particularly at 15 minutes in length – like an over-extended Adidas advertisement. It’s not unenjoyable to watch but its something that gains very little from being played in a cinema.
Stephen Porzio (twitter@porzfolio) is writing a series of articles reporting on Vancouver Lift-Off, the film festival, which he recently attended as an official critic. Stay tuned for the final coverage where Stephen handpicks the best shorts screened at the festival.