Since premiering at SXSW, the inspirational documentary T-Rex has screened in dozens of festivals and picked up multiple prizes for Best Documentary Feature, Best Feature and Audience Awards. It's a can't miss story, the story of 17-year-old Claressa "T-Rex" Shields, a teenager who lives on the hardest streets of an already hardened Flint, Michigan, home of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. The film is the first feature-length portrait by co-directors Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper and captures the efforts of the 17-year-old Shields to participate in the 2012 Olympics in Women's Boxing, a new Olympic sport in 2012.
Shields is a fierce and confident young woman, both inside and outside the ring. She has to be to survive with a wildly unstable family life where she is often thrust into the role of parent/caregiver for her younger siblings, Shield's primary support and encourager is Jason Crutchfield, a local boxing trainer with whom she has trained since age 11 and grown to be welcomed into his home as family.
As always seems to be the case in Shields's life, there will be numerous obstacles along the way including conflicts at home and a growing tension with Crutchfield as she grows into a more independent young woman and takes a liking to Rell, her sparring partner.
The film's biggest awards include the Roger Ebert Prize from the Traverse City Film Festival, the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at San Francisco International Film Festival, the Sidewalk Film Festival's Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature and a host of others. It's easy to understand the film's popularity with the authenticity of Shields, whose dreams of Olympic success include dreams of sponsorships that will allow her to lift her family out of Flint's poverty.
Regardless of what you actually know about Shields's story, Canepari and Cooper have crafted a compelling and involving film that is easy to follow and tells the story in a laid back yet relentlessly honest way. The film chronicles Shield's life from right about six months before the Olympics, through the actual Olympics and into the period after she'd taken home a middleweight gold medal. Shields, who is planning to represent the U.S. once again in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, ended up with really only one major sponsorship, Audi, after the Olympics and has since left Crutchfield behind along with making several other changes along the way. Despite the worries about her relationship with Rell, the two remain together.
T-Rex is a refreshing film in that it's honest. Canepari and Cooper don't hold back in showing T-Rex's vulnerabilities, weaknesses and losses, but their camera work shines through it all with sports action sequences that far exceed what we usually find in sports documentaries. It's this intimacy that works to the film's advantage as it invests us in T-Rex's journey and humanizes her in a way sports films, doc or narrative, seldom do.
If you're in New York, you'll definitely want to check out T-Rex. The film is also part of the Independent Lens series and will be screening in approximately 75 cities nationwide in free or educational settings.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic