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Review: Happy Valley (2014)

Happy Valley (2014)

Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev

Premise: A documentary film about the aftermath of Penn State University’s child abuse scandal and its impact on the school, the team, and the community.

What Works: One of the towering figures in college football, and in American sports in general, was Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. The program he created, the players it produced, and the number of games that were won became legendary and enthusiasm for football saturated the culture of the Penn State campus and the local community; Paterno achieved a level of celebrity that was rare even among college and professional sports. In 2011, Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach, was arrested and later convicted of over forty counts of sexual abuse of children, with some of the incidents taking place at campus facilities. The investigation revealed that ten years before the arrest, head coach Joe Paterno was made aware of Sandusky’s behavior and had contacted school administration but never reported the matter to law enforcement and may have even covered up Sandusky’s crimes. When this information became public, Penn State officials fired Paterno and university president Graham Spanier. Paterno died of lung cancer a few months later. The Penn State child abuse scandal and the demise of Joe Peterno’s reputation and career will likely be remembered as one of the great implosions in the history of sports. The documentary film Happy Valley tells this story but it goes beyond the narrative cast in the mainstream press. This film begins with the conviction of Jerry Sandusky and documents the way in which the community reacted to having their sacred cow publicly slaughtered. This is not really a movie about sports or college football; it’s a story of the faith people put into their institutions and the lengths to which they are willing to go to defend those institutions even in the face of obvious corruption and negligence. Yet, the movie isn’t a hatchet job on the Penn State community either. Happy Valley is upsetting not just because of the subject but because the filmmakers tap into the confusion that sets in when a community’s sense of self is threatened. That confusion results in scenes and commentary from students, fans, and family members that are maddening in their callous disregard for what’s happened but Happy Valley also contains moments of human vulnerability. And that’s what’s really at the heart of this film: the tension between the reality of Joe Paterno and the myth of “JoPa.” In that way, Happy Valley transcends the particulars of this case. It’s a movie about what happens after an idol is shattered and the desperation and fear that come in the aftermath.

What Doesn’t: There are a few themes in Happy Valley that are touched upon but do not get quite the examination that they deserve. One is the censure of Penn State by the NCAA; the association punished the entire school for the failures of the football program. For the NCAA to self-righteously criticize a college sports team for corruption is more than a little hypocritical and this could have led to a broader discussion of corruption in college sports in general but that’s beyond the scope of this film. Another issue of Happy Valley is the slandering of the Penn State name. As one of Happy Valley’s commentators points out, child abuse is widespread and to act as though this is unique to the school and its community is mistaken. Why those of us on the outside reacted with such revulsion is obvious but there is a deeper issue here of the scapegoating and castigation of Penn State that is potentially interesting. That’s not delved into very deeply because it is also beyond the scope of the documentary, but the issue warrants further debate.

Bottom Line: Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev has made a challenging and unsettling film with Happy Valley. But as upsetting at the film may be it is also critical viewing. This documentary transcends interests in sports or higher education; it’s a complex portrait of a community confronted with horrors from within its most esteemed institution and struggling to reconcile that horror with its own identity.

Episode: #520 (December 7, 2014)