‘Lucha: A Wrestling Tale’ Review: An Endearing Doc Portrait of Bronx High School Girls’ Wrestling Team

Making a documentary set in a high school seems like an absolute nightmare. It’s a tightly contained setting with layers of bureaucracy, and all your potential subjects require heaps of parental clearances for themselves and anybody they happen to talk to. Plus, teenagers tend to be just a wee bit changeable, defying a traditional narrative arc.

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Lucha: A Wrestling Tale, director Marco Ricci’s two-year chronicle of the women’s wrestling team at Taft High School in the Bronx, is, on many levels, a mess. It wants to be a story of individual students, a team, a school and even a borough, but owing primarily to issues of access and choices of focus, it struggles to achieve many of its biggest storytelling aspirations.

But for all the places Lucha fails to craft a convincing portrait, the levels on which it succeeds are just as important. Lucha is inspiring, offers several outlets for emotional attachment and, after 96 minutes, when the documentary reaches the point at which inspiration and emotion rise to the desired crescendo, it made me properly teary.

We’re told that Taft is a struggling, possibly dangerous public high school in a struggling, possibly dangerous part of the South Bronx. The women’s wrestling program is still finding its way, but behind enthusiastic young coaches Josh and Robert, it’s a program on the rise.

Over two seasons, we get to know a quartet of young women who each look at wrestling as an escape. There’s Shirley, functionally unhoused and counting on wrestling to get her into college. There’s Nyasia, who sees a pathway to trophies and possibly the Olympics if she can just get in better shape and raise her grades. Mariam, a Muslim immigrant from Gambia, hopes to win over her disapproving, conservative father. And Alba, freshly arrived from the Dominican Republic, is passionate about wrestling, but has to learn English and keep watch over her younger brother at the same time.

There’s a grounding problem that hinders Lucha from the start. It appears that Ricci’s Taft access was limited entirely to the school cafeteria where the wrestlers practice and a few minutes in front of the school’s recently barren sports trophy case. So any sense of the overall conditions at Taft and the relationship between the school and this particular team is absent. They definitely don’t seem to have a lack of resources — they have several full-time coaches and new wrestling singlets — and so there’s no way to tell what adversity is being overcome.

The Bronx is featured mostly through Shirley’s regular search for places to rest her head, through Alba’s at-home workout routine in her apartment complex and at nearby parks, and on the subway trips to meets.

Ricci does much better in his selection of featured students — the coaches are there for platitudes, good-natured encouragement and because one has an apartment with a spectacular balcony view out to Yankee Stadium — albeit with predictable access issues. Like, if a key team competition comes down to a wrestler we’ve never seen before… well, there’s nothing Ricci can do to punctuate the moment other than turn up the volume on the score. There’s nothing Ricci can do if he put one-fourth of his narrative eggs in Mariam’s basket, only to have her piece of the story come to an early and abrupt end. And there’s nothing Ricci can do if Nyasia’s primary source of conflict is in the classroom but the camera has no access to, well, the classroom or teachers or anything that would allow him to document the difficulties she’s trying to overcome.

Fortunately, Nyasia has a personality that makes her easy to root for, even if some of the approaches Ricci takes to fleshing out her story — odd porch conversations with a neighbor who really likes wrestling — rarely work. Alba has an infectious joy for the sport — she clearly has a background in wrestling that pre-dates her arrival at Taft, but the documentary raises more questions than it answers — and her journey is clear and well-documented, even if her parents’ general absence in the film is another thing that provokes inferences if not questions.

Shirley’s right on the edge of being a good enough subject that you might wish Ricci had made the documentary exclusively about her. She’s driven and gifted, and there’s a desperation to her circumstances that remains gripping even when other aspects of the doc go slack. There are still questions about the mother who kicked her out of the house, the various relatives who let her crash on couches and floors but only for a night or two at a time, as well as the ethics of what it means to be a film crew following a teenage girl who may end up sleeping in a subway car or stairwell at the end of an interview.

Nyasia, Alba and Shirley are so compelling that they cover for Ricci’s disinterest in spelling out details about the world of high-school wrestling. You don’t need to understand any logistics about the sport or the competitive wrestling structure of the city’s schools to follow along. You’ll care even if you don’t quite know why, and that’s a good summary for a documentary that’s heavily flawed, but eventually works anyway.

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