True/False 2023 Dispatch: “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” “Bad Press”

For my next dispatch from the 2023 True/False Film Festival, I’m spotlighting two underdog stories that recently premiered at Sundance: Going Varsity in Mariachi, the festival’s 2023 Show Me True/False selection, and Bad Press, the recipient of this year’s True Life Fund. Read my reviews below.

“Going Varsity in Mariachi”

GOING VARSITY IN MARIACHI dirs. Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez

If Glee centered around a mariachi band instead of a acapella group, the result would probably be somewhere close to Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez’s doc Going Varsity in Mariachi, which opts for uplifting and humorous storytelling but skimps on providing a lot of information that the mariachi newcomers in the audience could use— and I’m guessing that’s probably most of the audience. It may not be as familiar to most as band or choir, but competitive mariachi is, as it turns out, a thing. And for the Texas high schoolers who are members of Edinburgh North High School’s Mariachi Oro, living in a town on the fringes of society where most of the students don’t come from families with a lot of resources or financial stability, using mariachi as a means to obtain scholarships for college is integral.

Going Varsity in Mariachi is, to its credit, structured with a clear narrative arc, with characters who are immediately easy to root for. There’s Bella Luna, the level-headed senior and team captain who is preparing to enter pharmacy school upon graduation. There’s Abbey Garcia, the violinist who wants to pursue mariachi studies in college. And there’s Drake Pacheo, who just picked up the guitarron—possibly the most important instrument in the group—a few weeks ago, and who often skips out on practice to hang out with his girlfriend. Osborn and Vasquez primarily track these three kids, as well as their passionate teacher Abel Acuña, occasionally following them home to provide a glimpse of their personal lives. But Mariachi Oro is clearly filled with a bunch of great personalities, even if some of the other members sometimes come off in the film as tangents that the movie occasionally drifts off on, like Marlena Torres and Mariah Guel, a lesbian couple in their largely conservative town. This is an underdog story, and as Acuña makes plain early on, Mariachi Oro doesn’t kick off the 2021 school year in as great a place as they ought to be. So watching this scrappy group of kids claw their way through their glossy competitors is sure to draw cheers.

But for a movie about mariachi, Going Varsity in Mariachi is more a story about high schoolers than it is about mariachi. Which is fine, but the film is lacking that layer of commentary which could have made it more complex, and that underdog story more enriching. Instead, it leaves lingering questions about the history of the folk music and how it became competitive in the first place (although there is a great scene where Acuña has the students practice those yelps you hear in the music, called gritos), as well as the marginalized town and people the movie centers on. Going Varsity in Mariachi still possesses humor and heart in spades—but if you leave really interested in learning more about mariachi you might need to do some homework on your own time.

Runtime: 105 minutes.

Angel Ellis in “Bad Press”

BAD PRESS dirs. Joe Peeler and Rebecca Landsberry-Baker

There are few things quite as good as a great investigative journalism tale. For every infuriating infringement or juicy scandal there’s an admirable everyman or everywoman prepared to put their careers and reputations on the line to break the story. For the Muscogee Creek Nation seated in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the right being encroached on is one a lot of Americans likely take for granted: freedom of the press. While the U.S. Constitution guarantees that right, the fact that Native American tribes are exempt from external oversight means that they aren’t beholden to following it. As a result, out of the 574 recognized tribes in the United States, only a handful of them have laws guaranteeing freedom of the press.

One of those tribes is the Muscogee Creek, but at the start of Joe Peeler and Rebecca Landsberry-Baker’s documentary Bad Press, the tribe’s National Council repeals their free press law— without warning, without debate. The result is that news organizations like Mvskoke Media become subject to bureaucratic censorship, transforming into little more than propaganda pieces to put a clean front on a tribe who doesn’t want to air their dirty laundry. It doesn’t help that a lot of the council members are facing some potentially damaging legal troubles (the speaker has been accused of sexual harassment), and an election is coming up.

Enter Angel Ellis, a crusading reporter for Mvskoke Media and the hero of Bad Press. Where so many of her colleagues leave after the free press act is repealed, Angel (who had been fired years ago for breaking a story but returned) stays and fights. Her grit and tenacity are apparent from her very first appearance in the movie. We don’t see too much of the effect the job has on her family life literally spelled out on screen (after a brief explainer as the opener, Bad Press shifts to largely on-the-ground filmmaking set largely either in the council chambers or the Mvskoke Media offices), but we also don’t really need to. It’s all in her face, and in the passionate way she speaks, her dry humor giving way to sincerity (Angel Ellis is also the recipient of this year’s True/False True Life Fund to assist in her fight).

There’s a wide-ranging and colorful array of supporting players surrounding Angel as well, and Peeler and Landsberry-Baker (a member of the tribe herself) are given incredible access to them, contributing to Bad Press being eye-opening, inspiring, infuriating, and entertaining all once. And it’s tense— while the final film, which spans several years, may follow the arc of a traditional underdog narrative, we frequently are left on the edge of our seats as wrench after wrench is thrown into the plot (and the filmmakers surely didn’t know how it was going to play out as they were making this movie). While Bad Press zeroes in on the Muscogee Creek specifically, their story is a stand-in for the hundreds of other tribes who don’t have free press protections, and beyond that, it’s tale of the press versus government censorship is one that echoes throughout history. It feels especially prescient now, with the current political and media landscape more frequently challenging those freedoms across the country at large.

Runtime: 110 minutes.

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