Raise the Bar | Review | Hot Docs Documentary Festival 2021


Dipping into the world of feature documentary direction, having made two shorts previously, is Gudjon Ragnarsson. Having stumbled upon a gem of a story, Ragnarsson gets his chance to delve into the mind of the basketball coach, Brynjar Karl, as spit-flyingly passionate as John Keating of Dead Poet's Society and as deeply disdainful of "the man" as Dewey Finn in School of Rock. 

But this isn't fiction. Raise the Bar introduces the larger than life group of young girls who are equally as compelling as their coach. Wise beyond their years and deeply aware of their own emotion and how they respond to them, they express themselves openly and freely in the comfort of their team. Ragnarsson has a slightly conflicting visual style that dips between cinematic inserts and raw and real footage to build this world intrinsically alien to anyone outside of the immediate cohort. Even the parents are contemptuous, writing "whiney" emails and freely inserting themselves to shout at Karl's radical coaching style on a whim. 

They are a hugely unconventional and somewhat dysfunctional family, made up of the most gripping and amusing dynamic. As much as parents freely air their grievances, they are free to break down their emotion, as seen in beautifully intimate moments when the coach invites them to critique him. Ragnarsson isn't afraid to be in the moment with them, getting close and not staying at a distance even in times of heated atmosphere. There's an untouchable connection built between all the people we see on screen, and, fortunately, Ragnarsson got to capture it authentically. 

The film is short, running at about 70 minutes, meaning there's no time to be wasted in understanding what narrative we're in and running ahead with it at full speed, and with such compelling protagonists, it's hard not to. It does take a while to settle on its direction, but when it does, what becomes of it is truly a rewarding experience.

Some factors are up for debate, as the coaching style is not the only controversial aspect. Engaged deeply in discussing women's issues and how young girls grow up, this dialogue predominately takes over the narrative and doesn't always align without contradicting itself. For the lens being so male-dominated with having both a male director and lead-protagonist, it sometimes slips into casual misogyny, expressing distaste for typically feminine expressions such as make-up and what Karl calls "mall-rat mentality". It would be nitpicking to get into the effects this may have on the girls' perception of their fellow females in future years, especially when they are all so well aware of their minds and desires. 

The men are open in discussing their understanding of women's issues. One father shares his experience of boys feeling embarrassed to lose to girls as if they've "lost to some inferior being" it's positive to see this understanding captured casually and not lauded at some congratulatory way of thinking. 

Ultimately, Ragnarsson has made something heartfelt. The encouragement to challenge the status quo and not settle for what society labels you as is inspiring. It's the kind of story that, should it fall into the right hands, would make for fantastic fiction, but the reality of the story is arguably more compelling than a glossy Hollywood remake could ever capture. 

Hot Docs starts on April 29th, running till May 9th - tickets are available via www.hotdocs.ca 

Hot Docs is geo-locked to Canadian audiences. 

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