‘We Are: The Brooklyn Saints’: Youth Football With Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

The new Netflix docuseries We Are: The Brooklyn Saints, follows the players, coaches, and parents of a youth football program for kids between the ages of eight and 13. On the older end of that spectrum is Kenan, who has to choose which New York high school he wants to attend, in the hopes of getting enough scouting attention to eventually land a college scholarship. The coach of one of his prospective schools runs down the absolutely brutal math: At any given time, a million kids in America are playing high school football, while there are only 70,000 roster spots available to play in college. And fewer than 2000 of those can play in the NFL.

The numbers confronting Brooklyn Saints aren’t quite that harsh, but the four-part series still arrives in an incredibly crowded field of inspirational gridiron documentaries. Netflix has made multiple seasons of Last Chance U, about junior-college athletics, plus QB1: Beyond the Lights, among others. Amazon has its own sports-doc franchises, like All or Nothing. There’s even already been a series specifically about youth football, Starz’s Warriors of Liberty City.

Without so much competition, director Rudy Valdez’s solid command of the simple and emotionally affecting stories of these kids and the adults who care for them would be enough. But facing these challengers, the good-not-great Brooklyn Saints doesn’t quite get separation off the line.

The Saints, we’re told, were created to fill a void after cutbacks in budgets for school and Police Athletic League programs. There are three teams, depending on age, but Valdez (who won an Emmy for directing the 2018 true crime doc The Sentence) and his crew ignore the middle team to instead focus on on adorable nine-year-olds like D-Lo and Aiden on one end of the spectrum, and robotics-loving Kenan on the other. The streamlining is helpful, as even with only two teams, a flowchart may be necessary to keep track of which coaches belong to which teams and which parents belong to which kids. Most of the organization is composed of moms and dads and siblings, revealing how many of the kids got into the game as a family tradition, either as a way to bond with their fathers or to be more like their older brothers.

The breakout character, though, has no familial attachment to any of his players. That would be Coach Gawuala, who works with the younger players like D-Lo. Gawuala is exactly what you would want for kids at such a vulnerable, formative age: intense and raspy-voiced, but also disarmingly gentle and superhumanly optimistic. In the final minutes of close games, we hear him yelling encouragement for his guys to make the right plays to win, and if things don’t work out, he always finds a silver lining to share with them. The series is patient in letting Gawuala explain how and why he ended up with this team, and the moment is more than worth that wait. Where Valdez leaves all the other adults and most of the other kids as fairly broad types, Gawuala comes into perfect, at times painful, focus.

Gawuala also spends much of the series torn between his need to escape unemployment and his fear that a job would make it impossible to be as devoted to the team — or to keep coaching at all. Valdez deftly avoids poverty porn clichés. Everyone is blunt about the improbability of a college education for any of these kids who are unable to secure a football scholarship. And the camera’s eye can’t help noticing the contrast between the Saints’ ragged home park — in a Hoosiers-esque moment, the coaches have to measure and draw the lines on the field for their homecoming game after their usual groundskeeper has passed away — and the manicured grass and nice buildings of the suburban stadiums where most of their opponents play. But all of the central players are in families (often two-parents ones) that are getting by, even if tuition is beyond their means. The series is pointedly about divisions of class and race — one character is arrested right before a game, for what was apparently an unpaid fine — without being a wallow.

As much fun as it is to watch these sweet kids and their protective guardians put their all into the game, though, Brooklyn Saints is too often content to skim along the surface of the story rather than digging deeper. There’s an unnerving postgame moment, for instance, where one of the coaches checks Man Man, perhaps the smallest player on the nine-and-under squad, for concussion symptoms following a helmet-to-helmet hit. Man Man later says, while still looking a bit glazed over, “You always get hit in football. That’s what the game is about.” This is followed by a brief montage of the parents acknowledging that football comes with injury risks, but that the emotional and financial rewards of playing seem worth that risk. Neither they nor the film seems to want to reckon with our growing understanding of head trauma and the potential for CTE. (Even the word “concussion” isn’t spoken until much later, and as part of a long list of potential injuries detailed by the high school coach meeting with Kenan.)

It may be that complexity would get in the way of the uplift, which Brooklyn Saints provides early and often, down to several comeback sequences that seem straight out of a scripted underdog sports film. But the end result feels more generic than it could, especially given how many other docuseries are chasing the same dream.

We Are: The Brooklyn Saints premieres January 29th on Netflix. I’ve seen all four episodes.