The best thing about In Football We Trust is that it really isn’t about football. Other sports documentaries have told how hard it is for high schoolers to realize their dream of going pro. Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohen’s documentary succeeds because it’s not about football, but about culture. Specifically, it focuses on the lives of Polynesians living in Salt Lake City. While that may seem oddly specific, that specificity invites a stronger connection to the talented young men who are playing not just for a career, but also for their family, their faiths, and their culture.
In Football We Trust open by telling us that 240,000 Samoans and Tongans live in the U.S., and 28% of them play football. The documentary follows the lives of four highly touted high school football players: Harvey Langi, Fihi Kaufusi, and brothers Leva and Vita Broomfield. All four athletes have the skill to become top prospects, but that spotlight creates high expectations not only from colleges, but also from the players and their parents. Filmed over the course of four years, we see not only how they perform on the field, but more importantly, we see how they relate to their heritage, their communities, and their families.
While watching In Football We Trust, I was reminded of Steve James’ excellent, 3-hour sports documentary Hoop Dreams, which also followed teenagers and their goal to become professional athletes only to be met with the complications of their day-to-day lives. Although In Football We Trust also spends four years in the lives of young athletes hoping to make it to the big leagues, it plays on a much more abbreviated schedule as it looks at three families in less than 90 minutes.
But this approach works since the directors aren’t trying to be the next Hoop Dreams, but instead show the specifics of Polynesian life in Utah, and how their culture relates to their surroundings and their ambitions. As Harvey jokes early in the film, a lot of people don’t understand Samoans and Tongans. “They just think we’re big Mexicans,” he says. Harvey, Fihi, Leva, and Vita are all connected in that they’re talented football players, but also in how they take on heavy burdens for such a relatively young age.
Through the movie, I kept wondering how I should refer to them. Are they “young men”? Are they “kids”? Either way, they’ve placed high (and perhaps unfair) expectations on themselves. Harvey sees football as a way to become the first person in his family to go to college. Fihi pushes himself to be a superstar on the field. Leva and Vita try to avoid being sucked into their family’s criminal legacy. And any deviation from perfection—a misdemeanor, a felony, or an injury—could be enough to shatter dreams of making it to the NFL.
And this goal isn’t meant for personal glory. While the Langis, Kaufusis, and Broomfields aren’t depicted as living in abject poverty, they also have limited income, especially because large families are a part of their culture. For these high school athletes, getting to the pros is a way to support their loved ones, which is an lofty expectation for anyone, but especially teenagers. Becoming a successful professional football player is like winning the lottery if the lottery could take your money away any day and leave you with nothing but a broken body in return. “It’s not a way out, but a way up,” Leva and Vita’s father Fua Broomfield says. To succeed in football—a sport where Somoans and Tongans have exceled—is a way to uplift the entire family.
Again, this documentary does have a specific focus in terms of both ethnicity and locale, but the themes—ambition, limitations, and familial obligations—are universal. In Football We Trust isn’t about trusting in the “nobility” of the game or using it as a metaphor for life. It’s a sport that’s become part of a minority’s culture, and this documentary gives us a unique insight into that culture. That’s more powerful than seeing who gets the most touchdowns.
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