Can soccer save lives?
It seems an odd question at first, and I had a pessimistic answer at the start of Kicking It. But—wouldn't you know it?—the unapologetically schmaltzy film proved me wrong.
The documentary follows six homeless men from around the globe who travel to Cape Town, South Africa, to take their chances in the fourth annual Homeless World Cup. In all, 500 homeless people from 48 different countries competed for the cup in 2006, the year this film was made. Searching for purpose, some measure of respect and a chance to represent their country, our half-dozen unlikely heroes embark on a slightly predictable but warm and uplifting journey to better themselves through sport.
We meet Danny, an Irishman who is trying to recover from a heroin addiction. Alex, a good-natured Kenyan from Nairobi. Jesus, a former soccer star turned alcoholic from Madrid. Najib from Afghanistan, who has survived the harsh rule of the Taliban. Craig, who was abused as a child and now lives on the streets of Charlotte, N.C. And Slava, a Russian in a country that sweeps its substantial homeless population under the rug.
Because the film tries to follow so many participants, it's difficult to delve into any one person's backstory too deeply. You get a hint of what led to their homelessness, but director Susan Koch is more interested in following the games on the field than studied character development.
As soon as the players touch down in South Africa, the movie becomes a straight-forward sports drama of sorts. There are sudden death shootouts, heated disputes between coaches and players, and all the usual nail-biting moments you'd expect from a film based around a winner-take-all tournament. The teams' coaches adopt mottos with varying shades of competitiveness, ranging from the all-business Russian team, hell-bent on winning it all, to the fun-loving Spanish squad that spends its downtime relaxing on the beach.
The difference, of course, is that win or lose, when these players go back to their countries of origin, they will return to a life of struggle. That's a fact that makes the triumphant events in the film tough to swallow, and the moments of defeat that much more gut-wrenching. How long will the glory last, once all the bright lights and cheering crowds are gone? And on the flip side, it seems almost cruel to subject men who have dealt with so much disappointment and self-doubt in their lives to bitter losses at the hands of superior players.
But rest assured, above anything else, the film is optimistic. At the end, narrator Colin Farrell gives us follow-ups on all the individuals featured in the film that are mostly encouraging. There’s also a sense that, even in defeat, the players involved are steadily gaining purpose and resolve.
The suspenseful soccer moments are heavy-handed, and some of the narration can boarder on preachy, but there is a strong sense of hope and excitement that permeates the entire film. Kicking It is a heartfelt and upbeat tale about soccer's ability to change people against all odds.
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