The Spool / Festivals
SXSW: “A Most Beautiful Thing” Kinda Rows In Place
Mary Mazzio's inspirational sports doc is as empowering as it is occasionally muddled.
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Mary Mazzio’s inspirational sports doc is as empowering as it is occasionally muddled.

(This review is part of our coverage of this year’s SXSW Film Festival; while the festival itself is canceled, we’re still providing remote reviews for some of the independent offerings the festival would have had.)

The documentary A Most Beautiful Thing starts out with a central premise that already sounds like it’s ripe for an inspirational sports movie. In the late 1990s, a group of teenagers, including Arshay Cooper and Ray “Pookie G” Hawkins, from the West Side of Chicago came together to form the first all-Black High School rowing team in American history

This documentary doesn’t stop at that incredible tale. Director Mary Mazzio goes in a more expansive direction for A Most Beautiful Thing that includes deep-dives into the upbringing of these teenagers. The second half of the documentary is also dedicated to chronicling older versions of these rowers reuniting in 2019 for a rowing competition as they try to provide inspiration for the next generation. 

With so much going on,  it’s inevitable that A Most Beautiful Thing can’t keep each of its narrative plates spinning with equal levels of success. For instance, an emphasis on developing a bond between the rowers and Chicago police officers in the final half-hour of the runtime feels tacked onto the proceedings. 

Though intended to be an extension of how A Most Beautiful Thing explores people trying to break various types of cyclical toxicity, the actual execution of that idea is underwhelming. It’s so hurriedly introduced into the proceedings that it’s never able to garner as much depth as the most interesting parts of A Most Beautiful Thing.

Luckily, A Most Beautiful Thing primarily opts for a much more thoughtful approach to the rest of the hefty material it covers. Some of these weighty topics include living with a grandmother who struggled with addiction or what informs a teenager on the West side of Chicago to join a gang. 

Luckily, A Most Beautiful Thing primarily opts for a much more thoughtful approach to the rest of the hefty material it covers.

While it tackles this material, A Most Beautiful Thing treats its on-screen subjects as people. Both in Hollywood and general society, people with jail records and/or addiction issues tend to be dehumanized. Not here. Even one of the lead rowers, who’s forced to wear an ankle bracelet as part of a house arrest deal, is allowed to be defined beyond his criminal record. He’s an example of how A Most Beautiful Thing paints people out of individuals society tends to cast aside. with and people with admirable grace and the same can be said for how it shifts between differing tones.  

A Most Beautiful Thing’s ability to explore people as complex beings doesn’t mean it sacrifices entertainment when the time is right for such material. Some of the most memorable instances of these more light-hearted segments come about in recountings about the rowing team’s initial races. An extended tale about the first time they struggled to overcome “crabs” during a race is especially amusing. Connecting the disparate tonal elements of A Most Beautiful Thing is a unique manifestation of the idea of victory.

Back in their High School days, this rowing team didn’t actually win any races; the highest we see them place is third . However, their very presence in this sport helps to upend conventional stereotypes over what Black teenagers from the West side of Chicago are capable of. Sometimes, just managing to prove that it’s possible to exist in a certain space is enough to be a victory. 

A Most Beautiful Thing does end up biting off more than it can chew in terms of how much material it covers. However, its unorthodox approach to the concept of “victory”, not to mention the humanistic approach to its central subjects, keep it moving along quite swimmingly.