Watching the documentary Hood River, a profile of a small Oregon town’s high school soccer team during their 2018 season, recalls the pain and triumph that comes from growing up with sport as a central part of your early life. An often moving yet honest look at what it means to be a young person today, it is unique when it comes to documentaries of this kind. It shows all the challenges of coming of age, yes. However, it flips the script by centering the young people who often get talked about without ever being asked what it is that they think about their own lives and futures.
Watching the film, it proved impossible not to be drawn in. Part of this is due to the fact that I played on a soccer team in a small town (mine was coincidentally called Wood River) which shared a similar demographic makeup of players. It hit home to see a group of players, brought together with different racial and economic backgrounds, take the field as one team. It is, thankfully, not a documentary that brushes over these differences and how they impact the player’s individual lives differently. Rather, the game of soccer is the entry point to a deeper conversation.
How directors Steven Cantor and Jono Field came upon this subject is an interesting story in its own right. The town of Hood River, with a population of under eight thousand and an hour from Portland, is not a location that may jump out as being worthy of a feature-length documentary. Yet it is that precise reason that such a focus on an otherwise humble town makes for a fascinating film.
It turns out the idea came from the acclaimed filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, director of classic films like From Dusk Till Dawn and the recent blockbuster Alita: Battle Angel. Rodriguez is an executive producer on the film and first approached the directing duo with the pitch.
Cantor and Field were in an agreement with Rodriguez: this was a story that needed to be told.
“We do a lot of documentaries and a lot of character driven documentaries. [Rodriguez] had seen some of our work and he reached out,” Cantor said. “We get pitched a lot of stuff, and usually say no, but this one sounded really amazing.”
From there, the documentary crew embedded with the team for a whole season. Over several months, they captured the team trying to find their way. It is a refreshingly observational documentary, similar to prior work Field did with cinematographer Casey Regan on the 2017 documentary Step.
“[Step] was the same kind of thing: a high school girls’ step dance team in Baltimore,” Cantor said. “It was the same vibe in that movie, just forget the camera is there.”
That also means building trust to ensure the people being filmed feel comfortable and safe to talk candidly about their lives.
“So much of it comes down to knowing when it is right and when it is wrong to film something. We don’t usually go in, just set up equipment and be like humans that hold equipment,” Field said. “The first couple days especially, we didn’t even build the camera. We just left the cases on the ground, kicked a soccer ball around and talked to them.”
That was all part of the filmmakers’ vision that centered on capturing the emotional honesty at the core of the story without leaving anyone feeling like they were painted in a bad light.
“We’re very respectful. We don’t shy away from the drama when it happens, but we’re really not trying to make anyone look bad,” Cantor said. “We’re trying to make authentic, honest portraits of people.”
The people being captured include team captain Erik Siekkinen, who is white and more affluent than many of his teammates. His position causes him to initially struggle to connect and empathize with those around him.
“I think [Erik] thought being a captain and being a leader was about giving speeches and rousing everyone and being vocal on the sidelines,” Cantor said. “We were just filming his natural process.”
That natural process is something the documentary confronts head-on, unpacking many of Erik’s early flaws as a leader. Capturing this journey was a priority from the beginning.
“From very early on when we met Erik, it was something he mentioned,” Field said. “He was very forthcoming about that struggle of ‘I really do want to be a leader and I don’t know how to do it.’”
The film is not without its lighthearted moments in seeing the youths of today, including the normally stoic Erik, goof around as a team. It includes many scenes of unexpected off the cuff rapping, even rap battles, that became a unique generational detail that is charming and occasionally dorky.
“I don’t remember doing a lot of rapping in high school, but there were moments in elementary school I did it. Some of the kids just really liked rap. It is funny,” Field said. “TikTok wasn’t even a thing back then, but it was just something that some of the kids started to do and it spread.”
For Cantor, he saw the rapping as a way that the players would bond with each other as “they were all looking for ways to connect.”
With that being said, all of the dynamics of the soccer team only scratches the surface of what the documentary is about. It soon fades into the background when another player, Domingo Barragan, is forced to grow up far faster than any kid should. He will have to deal with how this country's cruel immigration system targets Mexican-American people, including those in Domingo’s own family.
The film takes the audience through how Domingo’s father was pulled over for a low level traffic violation and escalates as he is targeted over his immigration status. He ends up being held at the Northwest Detention Center all the way in Tacoma before being deported.
Field went on a several hour drive with Domingo’s family to the detention center, which has long been criticized for its unsafe conditions and is the target of a recent house bill attempting to ban for-profit prisons in the state.
“We did the drive and we did actually go in, but we weren’t allowed to take a camera. It was pretty bleak. The conditions were not what I would call great,” Field said. “All you really needed to see was [Domingo] going in, coming out, and seeing the impact that decision had on his family.”
Following the deportation decision, the documentary team traveled with Domingo for a painfully brief day-long visit to Mexico where he got to reconnect with his father.
“It was really wonderful to see [Domingo] interact with his dad,” Field said. “His dad was really sweet to us, he took us around and was really kind to show us what his life was like there now. There were some really heartfelt moments between him and his dad about what to do with the family now.”
That segment puts the film’s soccer aspect in perspective, revealing how for players like Domingo, there is a harsh world out there when they step off the field. It speaks to the greater inequality, in Hood River and elsewhere, that is impossible to overlook when seeing a portrait of any place in America. It reveals the fundamental disparity in opportunity and access underpinning the soccer team, serving for Field as “a microcosm of a lot of the current immigration debate in America.”
The approach ends up feeling similar to another documentary from this year: the Sundance film Homecoming, which looked at a group of high school students in Oakland trying to reform their schools. While being different in location, the two documentaries share a commitment to building compassion with “characters” that also are real people trying to grow up in an often hostile world.
“We’re fiction filmmakers in documentary careers. Not that we’re fictionalizing our documentaries, but that we don’t follow documentary conventions of narration and voice over and talking heads,” Cantor said. “We follow narrative conventions of ‘care about people and build emotional connection and follow them through their journey to just have more immersive cinematic experiences.’”
You can see Hood River at a special screening event in Hood River on Thursday, then in select theaters and on iTunes on Friday.