As anyone who’s winced through When Saturday Comes, The Match and There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble will testify, Brit-cinema and football don’t readily go hand in glove. Which is just one reason why this soccer-umentary makes for such a welcome surprise. The premise is straightforward: in the spring of 2006, five young freestyle footballers set out on a journey that will take them from London to Buenos Aires via New York, hoping to meet their hero Diego Maradona, one of the most brilliant (if often controversial) players who has ever lived. Lacking funding or sponsorship, the lads plan to busk their way across the States, using their keepy-uppy ball skills to earn tips.
The travelling quintet forms a diverse group, including de facto leader Paul ‘Woody’ Wood, extrovert Scouser Mike, devout Christian Jeremy, North Londoner Danny and Somalian refugee Sami. Most of them have tough backgrounds; but all are determined to prove that they’re not failures and have the mettle to reach their goal.
Debut co-directors Gabe and Benjamin Turner take a no-fuss, observational slant on their material. There’s no narrator, no preaching to the viewer and – save for one brief scene – the camera crew remains unseen. Our attention is pinned on the highs and lows experienced by Woody and co, who often sleep rough and go hungry on their travels.
The lads’ kick-tricks dazzle the eye while a vein of humour keeps the laughter glands busy. But what elevates In The Hands Of The Gods is its revealing peel-back of modern, working-class masculinity. The freestylers, several of whom bear the scars of childhood trauma, are refreshingly open with one another. Of course, there’s a bit of bickering along the way, but also a touching sense of mutual emotional respect. Whether in joy or sadness, the tears shed here aren’t of the crocodile variety. And come the final whistle, you may find yourself squeezing out a few tears of your own...
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Entertaining and affecting, this takes its subjects out of their comfort zone and onto a journey of self-discovery. Stirring soccer skills are matched by absorbing action off the ball.