Competition brings out both the best in us and the worst in us. It pushes us to be the strongest version of ourselves, yet, only when it’s partnered with the right mentorship does it actually bring out the best. Perhaps this is why misfits and sports almost go hand-in-hand in films. It’s not just your Bad News Bears, Wildcats, or The Mighty Ducks where characters considered society’s dregs must band together to reshape their public and personal perception, it’s A League of Their Own, Rudy, and Remember the Titans. It’s Creed, Dodgeball, Cool Runnings, and Field of Dreams. Misfits aren’t relegated to one group, one time, or one sport, nor are they always in the right. This is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Varsity Punks, writer/director Anthony Solorzano’s first feature, which not only shifts focus away from the sports the kids play, but also insists on highlighting the complex nature of kids in competition. While the film is a little rough in its execution, Varsity Punks ends up being a film audiences will root for.
At Monte Valley High School, if you’re not on the football team, you’re essentially no one. It doesn’t matter what you play or how good you are, if you can’t score a touchdown, your worth is nil. Talented QB A.J. (Cody Esquivel) learns this the hard way after he hurts his hand screwing around with his teammates and is removed from the team. Status gone but ever the athlete, A.J. finds himself joining MVHS’s leading loser team, the boys’ cross country team captained by childhood adversary Rosie (Andy Bueno). With years of baggage between them, Rosie and A.J. can’t simply let the past die, but they also can’t settle for less than victory. If they can put the team before their pride, maybe they can secure the state championship.
Solorzano’s script and narrative approach possess an incredibly specific intent, which is communicated from the very beginning. Opening with kids playing on a playground, it shifts to a physical education coach having his kids pick teams to play football. In this opening sequence, Solorzano sets up who the characters are, how the administration feels about those who can play football versus those who don’t, and the conflict between A.J. and Rosie which carries forward to their senior year of high school. It’s brief, simple, and powerfully sets the stage for their older dynamics. What Solorzano does once the stage is set to subvert expectations is what really makes Varsity Punks stand-out among other sports films: it’s not as interested in the sports themselves. Yes, we see the football team play and we see the cross country team run, but the film isn’t as interested in those moments as it is the ones involving character dynamics. How does A.J.’s life change when he leaves the football team, how do his teammates engage him, and how does he see himself? Similarly, what does it mean for Rosie as he’s forced to learn to lead someone he’s long held in disdain? By digging into these questions, by shifting the focus onto the characters and their individual journeys, Varsity Punks really sets itself apart. In comparison to moments of pure athleticism, the sports become boring to observe, which makes the choice to focus on the active participation in sports only when it serves the characters’ journey totally refreshing. Films like Creed and Varsity Blues use the playing of the sport as a metaphor for the characters’ internal struggles manifesting in the form of something in opposition to defeat. Within Varsity Punks, the opposition exists within A.J. and Rosie’s perception of value, meaning that no medal is going to satisfy either individual as much as maturing their POV.
Impressively, it’s not just the characters who are the misfits, but the filmmaker’s approach to directing the film. Through a mixture of what appear to be traditional shots, drones, and utilizing a creative use of speeding up the film, the audience is able to be carried off by the very independent spirit of the film. Much of this has to do with the casting of the film, which is largely a group of non-actors taking on their first roles, thereby inserting a natural tone to every performance. As the central characters of the film, Esquivel’s and Bueno’s performances carry the whole production. While there’s great support from more well-known actors like Efren Ramirez (Napoleon Dynamite) as cross country Coach Menlo and Noel Gugliemi (Fresh Off the Boat) as football Assistant Coach Cruz, if the performances from these two young men don’t work, nothing else in the film does. In the case of Bueno, Varsity Punks is his first film and, with luck, not his last. His performance conveys the understated damage which years of bullying and adolescent posturing create. In contrast, Esquivel’s performed in features, shorts, and even some television, yet everything he puts into A.J. feels like something he’s very much connected to. Because of the lack of posturing from the performers, Varsity Punks feel like real teens doing stupid things because of stupid choices. Through Solorzano’s camerawork, the audience feels like they’re right in the thick of everything these kids do. Doesn’t matter if it’s watching A.J. attempt an underage beer run, Rosie take part in a backyard brawl, or see the cross country team sneak into someone’s backyard pool for a mid-run cooldown, each of these moments are captured in a guerilla-like documentary style. More often than not, Varsity Punks exudes a feeling of Kids without the explicit sex, Revenge of the Nerds without the misogyny, and Varsity Blues without the extensive attention to football. Put all together, it’s a directorial combination which doesn’t feel like it should work, yet remains absolutely engaging.
But not everything scores in Varsity Punks. For one thing, it’s difficult to track time during its course. There appears to be little shift in season, perhaps because it’s taking place in a California town, even as the film specifically uses Halloween and Homecoming festivities for narrative events. Outside of this, it’s difficult to understand how much time is taking place between the start of the film and the end. This is particularly noticeable because of the reduced focus on the sporting events themselves. There’s not much for the audience to hold onto to maintain tension. Coach Menlo references needing to qualify for various competitions, but the audience never sees the cross country team win any races or the football team score any points. It’s fine to paint the team as losers and it makes sense to give them a goal which the film can activate as a means of building will-they-won’t-they tension, but then those markers need to be tangible and understandable, otherwise, it’s confusing and reductive. The other aspect is the broad characterizations of a few of the adult characters. It stands out the most with math teacher Miss Rios, portrayed by Raquael Torres. Where the journeys of A.J., Rosie, their respective teammates, and even Menlo to a lesser degree are explored, Rios seems only there as someone the kids can sexual harass and for whom Menlo can receive emotional support. Torres presents the character with such grace and pure intent as a teacher that seeing the character reduced in this way is surprising considering how the other women are treated more positively in the rest of the film.
In the end, Varsity Punks’s heart is what sells the experience. It feels like a first time production in the best of possible ways. It demonstrates writer/director Anthony Solorzano’s talent, places some new faces in front of an audience, and does something new with a well-worn genre. As much as the audience likes to root for an underdog and as frequently as they enjoy a coming-of-age story, the fact that Varsity Punks focuses on both of these tropes should make the film a real crowdpleaser.
Available on VOD and digital beginning February 26th, 2019.
For more information on the film and where to see it, head to the Varsity Punks website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
Varsity Punks DIY Road Show