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A scene from the documentary “Head Games”

3 out of 4 stars

Head Games
Directed by
Steve James
Chris Nowinski

Finally, there's a sports movie for people who are caught between admiration and fear of athleticism. Neither a triumphant underdog like Rudy nor a total weepie like The Pride of the Yankees, Head Games also deals with the illnesses and premature deaths of talented players.

Chicago documentary filmmaker Steve James, of Hoop Dreams renown, skillfully places us on the field with reluctant but proud coaches, players, parents and former players, each worried yet determined to participate. Like James, each is dedicated to their game – football, hockey, soccer – while concerned with its brutality.

Even as parents are interviewed about their recently deceased superstar kids, Head Games avoids a sentimentality associated with sports films and stories about extinguished "candles in the wind." Dealing with the perils of youth sports without being cloying requires a delicate balance. Instead, the film frankly sets up the tension between how we want to protect our loved ones and our ultimate inability to do so.

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Head Games begins on a football field, where players are told to be tough. With warmth and stridency, a coach convinces his child athletes that they are David and they're about to take on Goliath. The coach barks "hard work, dedication" and "your dreams could be real" at them and compares their helmets to David's giant-toppling stone.

Then we meet 280-pound former linebacker and WWE "bad guy" Christopher Nowinski, who says his job was the "closest thing to being a warrior outside war." Now retired with brain injuries, he's written a book on the topic, and crusades with other "concussion gurus." The expression "we need brains" is likely uttered for the first time in cinema outside the context of Frankenstein films as Nowinski and his peers conduct autopsies to confirm cases of "dementia pugilistica," also known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an under-diagnosed condition that plagues battered athletes.

Head Games' captivating depiction of a medical grey area – the mysteries of the brain – is equalled by its moral unrest. Several people are comforted in knowing that their loved ones committed suicide not because of "mental illness" but because of a "medical condition," as if a choice of words gives the semblance of control. Similarly, slight linguistic differences are responsible for major discrepancies in studies of post-concussion syndrome; one study that used the word "concussion" found that five per cent of athletes had sustained one, while another that chose a different word showed 50 per cent.

Head Games often resembles a blooper reel plus but unobtrusive pathos and storytelling mojo, with alarming figures and sound bites that describe the serious consequences of concussions . Like sports, this film fluidly compiles statistics in order to get and keep our attention. It's even got a detailed, Watergate-style "cover up" plot with its very own Deep Throat and a sweaty NFL commissioner.

In fun but rough games, the innocuous and the dangerous are impossible to separate. What do we do when our innocent forms of recreation, and our quest for the American Dream, cause grievous harm? James is as troubled by this paradox as much as by its provisional solutions. People who are aware of the devastating impact of concussions are also enthusiastic hockey dads. In the future, will we look back on violent contact sports as a barbaric relic and a societal ill?

Though it might seem from the outset to be relevant only for rigorous athletes and their kin, or function as a kind of "everything you ever wanted to know about brain injuries," Head Games also packs a deceptive dramatic punch.

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