I should be honest; I’m not really into sports. I follow the Baltimore Ravens occasionally (I’m happy they’re doing amazingly this year), plus I played tennis and practiced karate growing up. Still, I’ve just never really been interested in sports. The same goes for sports movies. Not that I hate sports movies, I love The Sandlot, The Longest Yard, Cool Runnings, plus a couple others, but I don’t go out of my way to seek out sports movies like I do horror and sci-fi. That being said, I don’t rule them out, a good sports movie needs to have a compelling character for me to latch onto, and Stay Close has that.
Stay Close, directed by Luther Clement and Shuhan Fan, tells the story of Keeth Smart, an African-American fencer from Brooklyn, and his road to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. I attended a screening of the documentary hosted by the non-profit, American Documentary. Stay Close is part of their shorts documentary series, POV. The short combines animation and archival footage to inform Keeth’s perspective, along with narration from Keeth himself. This technique gives the documentary both a unique identity and acts as an effective mechanism for getting us into Keeth’s head.
The short is incredibly immersive and empathetic. The animation and home movie footage help the film feel like recalling memories or telling a story over a fireplace. The scattered nature of both the footage and animation reflects recalling feelings or specific moments in time. As such, I was able to feel Keeth’s growth as a person, and he struggles with his parents’ death and overcoming leukemia. The scenes where he talks about his family are particularly heartwarming, anyone who’s family supported their passion would relate to Keeth’s experiences. When he talks about his parents’ death, it was particularly impactful because it interspersed with his Olympic training. As such, it’s easy to tie his struggles in with his training. The tone of the documentary as a whole is conversational, as Keeth sounds like he’s talking with us rather than as a lecturer.
My main critique of the movie is that, as it is about a champion fencer, I would have loved to have seen more about his actual fencing experiences. I understand that the movie is more about Keeth’s personal life than his fencing career, plus the film does address his training. But it would paint a fuller picture of his skills to get in his head during his competitions; to understand how he feels during an actual match. The only time the film really does this is during his earlier years, where he discussed how he grew as a fencer through regular practice. I would have loved to have seen more of his perspective while he’s fencing.
Overall, the documentary is incredibly engaging, and does an excellent job getting us to empathize with Keeth’s story. At the same time, I feel a chapter of his story is lost by not delving into his mindset as a fencer. The film does succeed at being personal and heartfelt, it did get me engaged in wanting to learn more about his life. In that sense, the documentary did succeed, which is probably the most important part anyway. But the lack of discussion on his actual fencing still makes the film feel incomplete, even if that wasn’t the film’s focus.
Stay Close was recently screened on PBS and can be viewed in its entirety here.