Going to the Mat (2004) (TV)

8 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Far be it for me to review a “Disney Channel Original Movie,” though to be honest, I have certain nostalgia for a lot of them (no matter how stupid I found a lot of them to be later on), having grown up watching the Disney Channel. But there is actually one that I can find myself reviewing and recommending because I genuinely find it to be a solid family-oriented sports film. That is “Going to the Mat,” released to the small screen in early 2004.

The story: Jace Newfield (Andrew Lawrence) is a blind teenager who has moved from New York City to a small town in Utah. Fearing the students at his new school will mock him for his blindness, he attempts to impress them all by bragging about his old home and making fun of jocks before they have a chance to tell “blind” jokes. However, it turns out that no one cares much that he’s blind because they’re already turned off by the notion that he’s acting like a jerk. He has two friends—Vincent “Fly” Shu (Khleo Thomas) and Mary Beth Rice (Alessandra Toreson)—who tell Jace that the best way to fit in around here is to be a jock. Music isn’t going to impress anyone, as Jace is a good drummer, mainly because the music teacher, Mr. Wyatt (Wayne Brady), is also blind. So finding a sport seems to be a new priority. Mary Beth suggests wrestling, as her father (D.B. Sweeney) is the coach. With Fly accompanying him, Jace tries out for the wrestling team. Of course, the other members of the team give him a hard time and think he’s on the team to play the “freak” angle for the local newspaper (which is not the case, as the coach is a no-nonsense guy). But Jace is determined to earn his spot on the team and works hard to improve on the wrestling skills throughout the course of the season.

What really stands out about “Going to the Mat” is the message. It’s probably obvious, but it’s actually very effective as well. It’s all summed up in one line, said by Jace later in the movie after he’s already scored a couple points for the team—“You know what really ticks me off, when people tell me how brave and courageous I am for doing things that sighted people do every day.” That’s a good, solid point. Just because a person is blind doesn’t mean he can’t do everything that sighted people can. And this is a problem that Jace didn’t have to deal with in New York City, as he was able to find ways to do what his friends did. Note the opening scene. He’s playing in a band in front of a large audience and they get good reception. In this scene, you wouldn’t even guess that Jace was blind as he plays the drums. But the next scene shows signs of his blindness, as he plays baseball with his friends. Jace is up to bat, and the ball that they use is a special one that makes beeping sounds for Jace to use his other senses to hit it when it’s pitched to him. Then, Jace goes to pitch the ball and sound is used here as well—the thudding sounds a fist makes when the catcher hits the mitt, giving Jace a target. All throughout this scene, they’re just having ordinary conversation; nothing except how they play the game is made of Jace’s blindness, even when Jace needs assistance as they grab a snack nearby. This is a really good scene; it’s executed and acted pretty realistically for a “DCOM.”

Anyway, now that Jace is in these new surroundings and having to prove himself because most people see him as a blind guy. One of the team is angry because Jace is taking his place (though to be fair, it’s because the coach doesn’t want the kid to hear himself before a big meet), and just sees the whole thing as a joke. Jace has to work even harder not only to score points for the wrestling team, but also to fit in with those that gave him a hard time from the start. And eventually, he does manage to succeed in earning respect, as well as points. What fascinates me about “Going to the Mat” is that this is actually a credible situation—maybe a little too credible for a DCOM (in that maybe it could have had a theatrical release instead).

Fly is also able to earn respect. He joins the wrestling team along with Jace, and is also picked on because of his short stature. But as Jace gets better with wrestling, so does Fly. Both boys are able to beat the odds and relieve themselves of the “underdog” status. This is something that sports-movies usually love to play off of—the underdog angle. There’s a ne’er-do-well group of misfits who try out for a certain sport and improve until they are able to earn regard from everyone. Surprisingly, while there are a few clichés present in “Going to the Mat,” the film doesn’t necessarily dwell on them. Jace and Fly’s “underdog” story arcs are played convincingly so that it’s easy to follow along their practice. The coach doesn’t take any bull from anybody, but he isn’t the one-dimensional jerk—in fact, he’s far from it. The bullies are surprisingly well-developed characters, particularly the wrestling-team captain, John (Billy Aaron Brown). While he does give Jace a hard time, the two grow to form a nice friendship because Jace is able to help him with his Spanish-class grade in order for John to continue being on the team. In return, John helps Jace practice. Even Mary Beth, which is what could have been the thankless role of high-school love-interest, is three-dimensional—kind, but not dim; helpful, but within limits; falls for Jace, but knows there’s a bit of a risk, seeing as how her father is Jace’s coach. Also, it’s refreshing that she knows a lot about wrestling.

Andrew Lawrence stars as Jace, and it’s a solid, charismatic performance. He’s completely convincing as a blind kid seeking to fit in. He’s tough, but sensitive too. He’s cocky and brave, but also knows when to keep his mouth shut and focus. And he doesn’t back down, though he knows his own limitations of his disability. He’s very good here and he’s also another very important reason why this film works. Khleo Thomas is not as successful, as he is sort of a generic best-friend character, but he is likable nonetheless. Alessandra Toreson is good as well, Billy Aaron Brown is a convincing jock, and Wayne Brady is also solid as the blind music teacher who informs Jace that it’s not sight that makes you who you are—it’s obvious, and the speeches are kind of hokey at times, but they’re effective at getting the point across.

Also, I’m kind of glad that the ultimate wrestling match at the end of the movie is a playoff match and not a final. It doesn’t even matter whether Jace wins or loses; it’s how Jace is able to handle it against one of the best high-school wrestlers in the state. In the end, he gains respect and no one sees him as just a blind person anymore. Yes, it is predictable, but I didn’t mind so much.

I’m not sure whether or not this is based on a true story, but to tell the truth, it wouldn’t really surprise me. What does surprise me, however, is how serious the story is treated. Maybe it’s not treated too seriously, for the sake of keeping kids invested. But there’s nothing handled in a dumb way, so I wouldn’t imagine many adults rolling their eyes at the film (like they would do with many other DCOMs). I liked “Going to the Mat” as a kid; watching it now, it turned out to hold up surprisingly well.

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