Sundance Review: HAPPY VALLEY

This doc about the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case paints college football fans as monsters.

By the end of Happy Valley I was in favor of sending the Marines into State College Pennsylvania and liberating the people from the mind control of the Penn State Nittany Lions. Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary about the Jerry Sandusky child sexual assault case and its cascading ramifications lays bare the profound moral hollowness of the hardcore college football fanbase, people for whom wins are more important than anything else in the world.

I’m not a sports guy, so when the Sandusky case exploded I didn’t truly understand the depth of what was happening, especially when it came to the Joe Paterno revelations (I had never even heard of Paterno before the Sandusky case). Happy Valley gives the necessary context to let even a nerd like me understand Penn State’s place in the history of college ball and especially Joe Paterno’s looming legend. And then it allows Penn State supporters to, with their own dumb words, paint themselves as stunningly clueless people whose football loyalties read like rabid, dangerous nationalism.

The Paterno stuff is the most interesting bit of the doc; the man’s life is a tragedy in the dramatic sense of the word - a great man who falls because of a deep personal flaw. That it happens in the last days of his life, that his legacy is tainted and then he dies, only makes it all the more tragic. But it’s the enabling of the team’s supporters that fed Paterno’s flaw, his pride in his team and the way he put that above all other considerations.

Happy Valley is a little long and tends to ramble. Bar-Lev lets many of his interview subjects go on for a long, long time, repeating ideas and statements. Sometimes that’s understandable - Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son and the only victim of abuse willing to speak on camera, certainly should get the space to say what he wants.

Bar-Lev truly captures the ground-level ugliness of Penn State fans, especially in the aftermath of Joe Paterno’s firing. There’s a lot of disturbing footage of white kids rioting about a sports program (one Penn State supporter who really just keeps saying the stupidest, most clueless shit denies it was a riot, saying it was a protest. Bar-Lev contrasts that statement with footage of rioters trying to set a news van on fire), and Bar-Lev’s camera captures people angrily and violently confronting an anti-JoePa protester at the Paterno statue.

In the center of it all is this artist who has created a Penn State mural. With each new development in the case he is forced to change the mural, painting out Sandusky, putting a halo on JoePa when he dies, removing the halo when the Freeh Report proves JoePa covered the abuse up and then finally giving the man a white rose to hold to signify forgiveness.

If this was a story about better people that mental journey would be reflected in the people of State College, but as the film ends with Penn State getting massive NCAA fines and being kept out of bowl games for four years (people actually weep at this news), we see that the fans have already begun putting their rabid attentions to the new coach. It seems like no lessons were learned - especially by the NCAA, whose critiques about Penn State’s culture of reverance for football seems exceptionally hypocritical - and that this story will, in some way or other, repeat itself again as fans and administrators turn a blind eye to horror because they only care about winning the big game on Saturday. What is the innocence of a few kids compared to crushing a rival team, right? 

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