The Brooklyn Saints’ is a Surprising Portrait of Boyhood

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The Brooklyn Saints’ is a Surprising Portrait of Boyhood

Considering Netflix’s track record with football-focused sports docs (read: five seasons of watching grown men flip shit in Last Chance U), you’ll probably be surprised to hear that the least interesting thing about We Are: The Brooklyn Saints is football. Football isn’t even the most interesting competition we see in the show, which follows the on-and-off-field adventures of a Brooklyn youth football program. It’s a middle-school robotics battle, where the 13U quarterback, Kenan, codes a miniature truck to pick up and put down blocks faster than his peers. (Netflix: give us an Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?-type series in the style of Last Chance U!)

While Netflix considers that pitch, let me tell you: We Are: The Brooklyn Saints, which drops this Friday, is not Friday Night Tykes—even if it does feature children waddling around with helmets the size of their torsos. Nor is it Last Chance U, even if it’s filmed in the same slo-mo, uber-cinematic style that made the college football series so beautiful to watch. It takes two of its four episodes to get there, but We Are: The Brooklyn Saints—once it realizes that watching recently-diapered kids play hot potato with a football for two hours isn’t all that interesting—paints a surprisingly moving portrait of boyhood. In the little, seemingly non-important moments director Rudy Valdez captures in the second half of the season, we see the lives of young men in a way that feels reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

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Before We Are: The Brooklyn Saints gets to what makes it truly great, it spends some time (maybe too much time) showing us the ins and outs of the football program. We meet Coach Gawuala, who is genuinely one of the best coaches you’ll see in the booming sports-doc genre—combining a mascot-like energy with a raw, open heart. There’s the stars of the 13U and 9U teams: Kenan and D-Lo, respectively. Kenan is the coding/robotics wizard; D-Lo is an off-field pianist who struggles the great struggle of a nine-year-old quarterback: his receivers can’t catch a football with their little baby hands. We Are: The Brooklyn Saints follows the program during the 2019 season, mixing footage from each of the games with off-field action—which mostly amounts to parenting moments and the kids doing kid stuff, trolling older brothers and shoveling bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Netflix

Again: the football part? Really not all that interesting, through no fault of the filmmakers. If you’ve played sports in your single digits, you know exactly what you’ll see in We Are: The Brooklyn Saints. Crying. LOTS of crying. Sometimes screaming. A few meltdowns. I realize Friday Night Tykes rolled for four seasons on the backs of sobbing children, but it’s never fun watching a kid well up. Especially when it’s football. Because the Saints players are often on the receiving end of brutal hits, always cause for alarm when we know what repeated hits to the head can do to a brain. (For the record, the filmmakers ask the parents about this—the general sentiment seems to be that the stay-out-of-trouble benefits far outweigh the injury risk.) And spoiler alert: the teams aren’t that good either. The 9U team has an especially terrible go at its season, which, you’ll find out, makes for some of the show’s best moments.

Around the middle of the show, we find out that D-Lo’s father, who is one of the coaches on the team, was suddenly arrested. He can’t make the game. When D-Lo—who’s clearly a talented and smart, but sensitive (in the way all little boys are sensitive) kid—starts to well up. He doesn’t play well. It’s clearly one of the first games he’s played where his dad wasn’t screaming from the sidelines. Later on, we find out that the problem was an unpaid parking ticket, but one of We Are: The Brooklyn Saints’s greatest moments comes when D-Lo sits with his dad to talk through what happened. The coach says, frankly, that he let D-Lo down, and never wants to be like his own father—a traveling musician who never saw him play as a kid. By this point in the series, the kids seem used to the omnipresence of cameras, so the moment feels real. Of course, most of D-Lo’s days that year will fall from memory, but you get the sense that he’ll never forget that afternoon on the bleachers.

dalontai “d lo” in episode 2 “welcome to the saints young man” of we are the brooklyn saints s1 cr netflix © 2021

Netflix

From that moment on, the show starts to feel more Boyhood than sports doc. Once the filmmakers let football fall to the background, we get the real-life portrait of youth that’s so hard to come by these days. Boys staring out of the windows of a bus, thinking about nothing but where that bus is headed. Giggling while they put toilet paper on top of a coach’s head. Mimicking older brothers. Chasing each other around until they collapse on the floor, panting with stupid grins on their faces. It’s a reminder of how essential youth sports is for the growth of young people—something that has been under constant threat since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully, leaders like Coach Gawuala—the always-hyping-hypeman, who’s so moved by his paternal role that he tears up when he talks about it—will never leave these kids far from sight. Even when there isn’t a field to play on.

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