Reviews Short Documentary

Finish on Top (2023) – 2.5 stars

Director: Jesse Rindner

Running time: 11mins

For a film about college wrestling, Finish on Top is an ironically conflict-averse affair. I’m not sure I want to glibly reinforce the idea that every film needs a struggle in its central narrative for it to be compelling – I’m sure it’s possible to make a great film that’s just about something pleasant, without requiring the subject to face up to some great ordeal to keep us engaged. When that subject is literally a person who is participating in a combat sport, though, it seems counter-intuitive not to talk about some of the obstacles she has faced throughout her life and career.

While the film is very hands-off about presenting her as its main event, Naomi Henry is the de facto protagonist of Finish on Top’s story. She seems to get the most screen time, her bouts are the ones we see most of, while her development under the guidance of coach Barry Hart, who has been with her through high school and university, is the only thread which runs consistently through the narrative.

Some oddly static talking heads see Henry, Hart, and a few other women from New Jersey City University’s wrestling team sitting in the middle of a Greco-Roman wrestling circle. They explain that Henry was originally a soccer player, but took up the sport on the recommendation of a teammate. Indicative of the placid watch that is to come, Henry recalls her initial reaction to becoming a wrestler was a dismissive “really?” It might have been interesting to see why Henry had this reaction because in all likelihood, few viewers are interested in Greco-Roman wrestling either – and finding out why Henry was eventually attracted to the sport in spite of misgivings she might have in common with the audience could have helped them empathise with her, and learn to care about the sport. But director Jesse Rindner does not seem to have nudged her further on the topic – the first of many missed opportunities.

Another becomes apparent as Coach Hart makes the admirably candid admission that his sport isn’t the centre of the universe (a level of self-awareness many of the sociopaths who make their way into coaching youth sports could do with). Instead, he suggests that after wrestling he hopes his team will be “set up for success off the mat”. This takes place in the final moments of the film’s footage, though, with the image and sound cutting out abruptly over the team chanting “Jersey City” – almost immediately after he has said his piece. Theoretically, this shouldn’t matter, because the rest of the film should have shown us how the team have taken core skills away from their time as wrestlers, to succeed in adult life – particularly in the case of Naomi Henry. It is a problem though, because this has not manifested in any meaningful way.

Henry has been wrestling for seven years, she is one of the best in the country. But we do not hear much about what she has taken away from that experience as she leaves the sport behind. As she graduates from NJCU, the plan is now to go to law school, she tells us. But it would have been great to hear about how her experiences in wrestling have changed her, made her stronger, and more optimistic when facing adversity.

Most obviously, the first challenge was her getting over her pre-learned assumptions about the sport that first led to her dismissing it. There are also the challenges which come with learning any new skill – and the temporary hurt caused to your self-esteem when you initially suck at it. On top of that, though, there may be other difficulties which it would be useful to hear about. The team do not get scholarships, so how do they balance their passion with their studies and, presumably, a job to pay rent?

Were there social stigmas to overcome? If Rindner could have got Henry to walk through all this in more detail, she might also have primed her for a more definitive link to how these activities have left her stronger mentally, as well as physically. In turn, this would have made more of a case for why the viewer should value wrestling as a pastime, and maybe even why they might give it a go for themselves.

Failing to push for more complex and controversial content means that there is not much to involve us here. The overly-produced interview segments where nobody has anything bad to say mean what could have been impactful shots of team spirit and triumphs over adversity feel more like the sort of stock images of ‘togetherness’ a university would use in its promotional material.

IFL has had other documentaries about women doing incredible things which have also suffered from being a little too positive. Women on a Roll, I Do Matter and Mothertruckers would all have benefitted from presenting a final product that was a little less clean, helping us to empathise more with their subjects by showing a little more of the adversities they had to battle to follow their passions. But Finish on Top takes that to another level. It offers up a watch with all the grit of a college prospectus, which will ultimately struggle to grip viewers.

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