The Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival is the ultimate filmmaker tryout camp, an opportunity for independent productions to catch the eyes of studio scouts and—if they're lucky—sign a distribution deal. Eight films were screened at this year's third annual fest, which wrapped up in New York City on May 3. SI's Brian Cazeneuve, Adam Duerson and David Epstein review the ones that created the most buzz.
When he left Cuba in 1961, Luis Tiant thought he would never see his homeland again. But after 46 years, during which he became a pitching star with the Boston Red Sox, Tiant returned to Cuba in 2007—an emotional journey chronicled by documentarian Jonathan Hock in Lost Son of Havana. Against a backdrop of crumbling buildings and neighborhoods without basic goods, let alone grocery stores, Tiant works through feelings of guilt over prospering in America while many loved ones remained on the decaying island, and he discovers that he is still revered there by a generation of fans who never saw him play. "I had to revisit my soul before I died," Tiant, 68, told the audience at the premiere. (ESPN bought the film and will air it in August.) "I didn't realize how much of myself I left over there."
In Racing Dreams, director Marshall Curry follows three preteens, two boys and a girl, in the championships of the World Karting Association, a go-kart proving ground for aspiring Jeff Gordons. All three have success on the track, but Curry really gets traction when exploring his subjects' backstories. One kid is racing-obsessed, another isn't so sure and the third probably can't afford to compete anymore, making the film—which was named the festival's best documentary—at once joyous and poignant.
Herzl is 35, single, unemployed, living with his overbearing mother in Ramla, Israel, and extremely fat. He's an odd hero for a sports film, but when he discovers that his girth is a gift in the world of sumo wrestling, A Matter of Size begins to sing. Herzl starts training with his boss at the Japanese restaurant where he works, and there are comic moments in their discussions about obesity and in their flesh-jiggling training montages. The genre of feel-good, niche-sport films has a worthy new member.
The issue with the swimsuits in The Swimsuit Issue (no, it's not about Bar Rafaeli) is that they are women's suits—and men are wearing them. Fredrik, a Swedish journalist with an insatiable competitive streak, finds an unlikely outlet when he dons a suit his teenage daughter uses for synchronized swimming practice and performs an impromptu routine at a bachelor party. Overestimating his ability to perform an eggbeater, Fredrik forms a male synchro team. (Think The Full Monty in a pool.) Fredrik fights to enter his team in the world championships of the all-female sport. The result is an endearing comedy with the well-worn theme of how the doubts and disdain of others can be overcome when a team rallies around a common goal. Sports fans will recognize the message.
Y Tu Mamà También costars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna are reunited in Rudo y Cursi as poor, banana-farming Mexican stepbrothers who become famous after being discovered by a soccer scout. The Sony Classic Pictures release isn't a soccer movie, though. Aside from a few scenes of Luna playing goalie, there is little action on the pitch; that might be because his brother has more interest in pursuing a music career. (García Bernal's accordion-backed version of Cheap Trick's I Want You to Want Me is a highlight.) The sibling rivalry is entertaining at times, but the film's title—it translates as "tough and corny"—works as a descriptive as well.
Many documentaries benefit from an unscripted climax or some other stroke of filmmaker luck. Spike Lee's Kobe Doin' Work is a reminder that sometimes the cameras roll ... and not much happens. In April 2008 the director followed Kobe Bryant for a behind-the-scenes look at the Lakers star's preparation for what Lee hoped would be a thrilling late-season game against the Spurs. (ESPN will broadcast the documentary on May 16.) But L.A. won by 21, and Bryant spent the fourth quarter icing his knees. Bryant, who narrates, might have salvaged the movie by offering insightful commentary; instead he mostly delivers clichés like "basketball is a chess game; you've got to think things through a little bit." It feels as though Lee failed to do that here.
Lost Son of Havana
A Matter of Size
The Swimsuit Issue
¬© SONY PICTURES/EVERETT COLLECTION
Rudo y Cursi
Kobe Doin' Work