If Hoop Dreams is the ultimate example of how looking closely at a varsity sport can open a window on American society, Takedowns and Falls demonstrates what happens when a documentary doesn’t get far from the arena. That’s not to say this panoramic portrait of the wrestling team at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, lacks drama or even heartbreak—Coach Jeff Sweigard was diagnosed with lymphoma in the fall of 2005, when the film begins, and many of the teen wrestlers view their performances in the season as reflections of whether they’ve triumphed over personal struggles. But the movie is rambling and unstructured; its endless slo-mo practice sequences feel like padding, and a lot of extraneous footage has been yoked together with generic keyboard and guitar riffs.
Directors Todd Hickey and Kirk Ledger are reportedly former Sweigard students, which explains their affection for the material. For those not immersed in the milieu of high-school wrestling, the film offers a few intriguing pointers, explaining how at this age, for instance, a lower weight class is generally an advantage. But the kids’ insights are overwhelmingly platitudinous, and without Hickey and Ledger’s feeling of investment in the team’s success, it’s a long haul to the championship.