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“Hood River” Documents a High School Soccer Team’s Struggles Both On and Off the Pitch

The film leaves you to interpret how gestures of unity—tough team summits on race or Portland trips to buy shin guards—reveal themselves in clearer communication on the grass.

Where many Portlanders might see Hood River as an idyllic spot to kite surf the Columbia or knock back pints of pFriem, Robert Rodriguez sized up the Gorge community—and its high school soccer team—as compellingly divided.

More than three years ago, the director of Spy Kids and From Dusk Till Dawn was combing the country with his documentary producer hat on, searching for profile-worthy towns. Hood River co-director Steven Cantor recalls Rodriguez’s immediately intriguing pitch for a documentary:

“There are wealthy scions of tech entrepreneurs and kids of Mexican farmworkers and laborers who all go to the same school and are on the same soccer team. If they can get over their socioeconomic differences, they have a chance to win the state title.”

If that sounds a bit like a Disney sports movie from 1996, perhaps it’s heartening to know that slivers of life seen in Hood River imitate cherished redemption narratives and reliable archetypes. The documentary features a slightly beleaguered but largehearted Hood River Valley High School soccer coach in Jaime Rivera. There’s a quiet loner hiding massive potential and family turmoil in player Domingo Barragan. Well-to-do captain Erik Siekkenen must learn to lead with compassion, not ego. And without spoiling the moment, there’s an on-field triumph you couldn’t possibly script, a kick the directors would have missed if they hadn’t teed up a wide shot just minutes earlier.

“[Director of photography Casey Regan] looked up from the camera and at me with his mouth [hanging open],” recalls Cantor of the fateful goal. “You better have gotten that.”

In vérité style, Hood River eschews interviews but still captures savvy breakdowns of the namesake town, particularly from team captain Saul Chavarria.

“Hood River, it’s either one of two ways,” Chavarria lays out in the film. “You just work hard, worrying about the next bill, worrying about the next payment. Or, you live in Hood River, and then you’re worrying about the next biking trip or the next ski trip. It’s a good place to live if you have money.”

Both Cantor and co-director Jono Field have previously embedded themselves among high school athletes, on the crew of Step, which chronicled a Baltimore dance team. This time, in recording teenage rituals as private as basement parties and school bus rap battles, Field laid back initially to cultivate comfort.

“When we first got there, we just left the camera unbuilt on the sidelines and kicked the ball around,” says Field, who lived in Hood River for much of 2018. “I also really embarrassed myself trying to kick a ball around with these guys. I think that gave them a psychological up, like, ‘Oh we’re not threatened by this guy anymore.’”

That trust paid off when the documentary’s stakes skyrocketed. With their blessing, Field followed the despondent Domingo to a Washington detention center and eventually to Mexico after Barragan’s father was detained for a traffic infraction and then deported.

“There’s no way you don’t fall in love with Domingo and root for him,” Cantor says. “To have his dad torn away like that, it’s crushing.”

Despite the off-field anguish and sharp community divisions, Hood River is, at its core, a soccer story. Cantor sees the Gorge town as kindling a Friday Night Lights-style relationship with its beloved Eagles. Soccer is “far and away” the most popular Hood River sport, Cantor says, and the team is a perennial playoff contender, now 12 years under Coach Rivera’s leadership. Even Cantor’s “wealthy scions” characterization of the Eagles’ white players is just floating somewhere in the film’s background, since adults (besides Domingo’s parents and Rivera) barely appear. As the viewer, you’re left interpreting how gestures of unity—like tough team summits on race or Portland shopping trips to buy Domingo shin guards that aren’t made of cardboard—reveal themselves in free ball movement and clearer communication on the grass.

In this sense, Hood River left it all on the field in 2018. Today, Chavarria plays soccer at Cornell, Siekkenen studies medical engineering in Colorado, and Barragan runs his own construction business in Hood River. As young adults, they probably embody their hometown in ways too complicated and disparate to document. But for a season, they lived a sports movie.

SEE IT: Hood River streams on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.