Movie ReviewsTownsend Outlook Publishing
by John P. Katsantonis
Wrestling with Life’s Predicaments
Next to being a parent, the most difficult role in life is being a teenager. And no motion picture in recent memory has more honestly or accurately depicted this fact than REVERSAL, a stunningly authentic independent film by James Petulla.
The film is so true-to-life that dozens of Olympic gold medalists and celebrities, including best-selling novelist John Irving, author of The World According To Garp (which 1982 film version starred Robin Williams as the title character) have praised its depiction of the rigors of sports training regimens. The film details how personal and family relationships suffer and are left by the wayside as direct result of intense focus on individual athletic achievements and personal goals. In that regard, filmmaker Petulla succeeded quite admirably. Not only did he write and produce the movie; he also starred in REVERSAL. He was able to keep it real because it’s his own true-life story. In the film, Petulla portrays his father, a good-hearted, hard-working man in the coal-mining country outside Pittsburgh who wants nothing more than to have his son become the wrestling champion he never was.
Petulla portrays the father (Edward Leone) with quiet brilliance, not as a one-dimensional brute but as a hard-working, hard-driving, sympathetic character. The performance won him Best Actor award at last year’s IndieVision Tribeca Film Festival, organized and sponsored by film legend Robert DeNiro, among others.
” I’m interesting. The best thing since wrestling”. -Eminem, The Eminem Show, 2002
This fact alone makes the decision that young Petulla (Leo Leone) made in real life at age 18 – to quit wrestling and become his own man, by following his vision to go to Hollywood and venture into the entertainment business – even more powerful, and the film that much more authentic.
Another reason for REVERSAL’s realism: rather than hire actors, who could be taught to wrestle, Petulla hired wrestlers with natural acting talent. This makes the film’s wrestling-action sequences that much more powerful and believable. As shown in the movie, Edward wants Leo (acted by newcomers Derrick Nelson, age 7, and Danny Mousetis age 18) to become a wrestling champion in the worst possible way, which is exactly how he goes about driving his son to the brink, hoping that he will escape the drudgery of Edward’s own “coal-miner” existence. Edward pushes Leo onto the mat at age seven and sets impossibly demanding disciplines, including strict weight-control measures, such as extraordinarily limited diets – which one should have to endure – onto the boy at his tender young age.
By age 18, Leo is a full-fledged wrestling star, who has begun to resist his father’s mania. “If you don’t make state champion, you won’t get that full-boater to Oklahoma,” says Edward. “So what?” asks Leo, defying his father for the first time. Interestingly, Oklahoma University’s head wrestling coach, Jack Spates’s son, Justin starred in the movie as Leo’s nemesis (Thurman Ellis Jr.) who moved to Leo’s school near the end of the season. He’s a state champion from Ohio and competes in the same weight-class as Leo, possibly causing the protagonist to cut even more weight.
The price Leo pays includes the disorder known as Bulimia, thanks to the inconsistent, binge-and-purge eating pattern that nearly kills him. The film is a break-through on a number of levels, not the least of which is its accurate depiction of that disorder, largely thought to be the exclusive province of females. The sad, shocking truth is that most boys throughout the U.S, who participated in wrestling, especially at the high school level, until as recently as 1997, often face this grueling regimen. I considered going out for the sport in high school but my coach’s tales of team members having to consume mass quantities of Ex-Lax in order to “make weight” sounded just a bit too unholy for me. Yet, this type of brutal “training” was real, literal, and all too prevalent.
More than a wrestling or sports story in general, REVERSAL brings home a number of metaphors for teenage life. If only because we all must “wrestle” with life on its own terms, the more we age.
Inclusion of Alice Cooper’s classic “Eighteen” (as covered by metal rocker Don Dokken) in the film’s soundtrack underscores the truth, and the main struggle of being that age, “I’m a BOY and I’m a MAN.” And, even more than the average teenager, the question of “coming of age” for Leo, and all who can relate to this situation, spins into a question of “on whose terms?” Certainly, one can see the hero-worship in the face of little Leo. Yet, by the time he’s spent meeting his father’s overly demanding expectations, trying to become a champion to “make his father happy,” teenager Leo feels entirely conflicted: his mother so clearly opposes the mania and intensity with which his training regimen is taking its toll on him that he must “wrestle” with such natural urges as having a simple, normal teenager existence, from having a girlfriend to things as simple as eating some junk food, or even having a piece of cake at his own birthday party.
Without revealing the multitude of plot twists, Leo also faces certain unexpected tragedies and deals with the consequences of the path chosen by his father, which conflicts with his own budding desires. Including going to Los Angeles and become a radio DJ. Certainly, there is no doubt that heroes and celebrities, whether athletic, Olympic, show-business or otherwise, do have to face a discipline that few of the rest of us must, in order to be at the top of their chosen profession.
As Petulla says, “The messages from wrestling – that hard work, discipline and dedication pay off in all areas of life – are being felt by people other than wrestlers. It’s about time!” Without question, there are untold sacrifices to be made, before one can achieve such lofty goals, and they are not for the faint-of-heart, mind, or body. Leo did get to the top of the wrestling game, even though the goal was not his. But the real question, “Was it enough?” can be answered in any of three ways: “Yes,” “No,” and “No, it was too much.” So the real bottom line is that our lives, at whatever age, are about our lives. And even if we succeed in those areas where parents and others may expect us to, even if we possess the talents and skills that make those successes possible, are we fulfilling our hearts’ desires? Asked differently, “Whose movie are we in ours, or someone else’s?” Only we can decide that, for ourselves.
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-John P. Katsantonis Wrestling with Life’s Predicaments