The Penn State scandal was a perfect storm of American anxieties: hometown pride under siege, the spectacular fall of a revered football coach, and a terrible chain of crimes involving the very young. There might be no full recovery from the 2012 conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sex abuse over 15 years, nor from the dawning implications of chief coach Joe Paterno’s culpability in saying too little, too late. (His private remorse seemed to bring on the precipitous decline in health that quickly took him down.)
But it can be definitely said that director Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That), a skilled chronicler of tricky dynamics, has done an expert job of brewing the controversy to its full potency. In deliberate, well-considered steps, Happy Valley sets the scene, starting with the bucolic town of State College, Pennsylvania, one that goes crazy with gridiron passion every season. We see footage of Sandusky being perp-walked out of the courthouse, hear interviews from the now-grown defendants (including, tragically, the disgraced coach’s own adopted son) and sit with Paterno’s bitter wife, who feels her late spouse was treated shoddily by an alarmed collegiate authority that imposed severe penalties to restore order.
The troubling tale is well told, unpacked with a clarity and a minimum of ominous mood music. But the elements that stay with you longest are stealthy ones you almost wish were foregrounded: Tourists and locals squabble next to a Paterno statue and nearly come to blows, a celebratory mural is thrice revised by its artist, and a well-spoken superfan expresses resentment that he now has to show an appropriate amount of garment-rending sadness just to prove he’s not a monster. It’s a ruined community grappling with belated ethics; that’s the real story here.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf