'Happy Valley' (unrated)

If you think college football is only a game, you might think that “Happy Valley” is nothing more than the a place name that has become attached to of the bucolic area around Penn State University. And you would be wrong on both all counts.

As examined in this thorough, thoughtful and disturbing documentary, college football appears something very much like a secular religion, and the aptly named Happy Valley is revealed as one of the cheerleading centers of unapologetic reverence for this Saturday afternoon spectacular — with all the consequences that level of veneration implies.

As directed by Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story), Happy Valley doesn’t investigate this situation in a vacuum, but rather in the context of perhaps the most controversial story to come out of college sports in recent years.

That would be the circumstances behind, and the reaction to, the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, a key member of the Penn State football coaching staff. His , whose conviction in 2012 of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys shattered the equilibrium of a community that had always believed that football was a symbol of something greater than itself. , of something special.

One reason the residents of Happy Valley believed that was the personality and accomplishments of Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, whose belief in the college football game as a character-builder had grown so legendary over his more than 40 years at the university that fans called took to calling him “St. Joe.”

As the Sandusky story unfolded, it was revealed that a graduate student had told Paterno had been told by a graduate student of seeing he had seen Sandusky with a young boy in a sexual situation. Although , and while the coach had reported this to his university superiors, neither he nor they took had taken the further step of going to the police. about what they knew.

Because of who Paterno‘s was, because of his stature in the community, the moral question soon arose of as to whether he had done enough, and whether who he was created an obligation to do more. And, more to the point, did his inaction wipe out lack of action invalidate all the years of positive things he had done at the university over the years?

If Paterno’s involvement in the story is a major focus one of the documentary, ’s key focuses, the other, even more agonizing center of attention is Sandusky’s adopted son Matt Sandusky, who out of family loyalty told police nothing had happened to him and then, he says, “risked everything to tell the truth. In the end, here I sit, betrayed by them all.”

Coming from a troubled background and living in a house without running water, 10-year-old adoptee Matt viewed Sandusky “like a savior.” “The Sandusky name was like a golden ticket in this town. It was good to be next to him, to feel powerful, to feel that people envied me instead of looking down on me.”

Involving as all of this is, it is only part of the complex narrative that Bar-Lev examines. The , a story that attracted him, as the late NFL player and soldier Pat Tillman’s had previously, for a reason he explained in an interview before the film’s Sundance premiere:

“When you have a story that has the kind of explosive momentum these stories do, you have to scratch your head and ask why people find this so interesting, what gives the story traction.”

Bar-Lev did more than that. ; He was open to exploring the surprisingly varied various points of view people had about the ramifications of the Sandusky situation. Happy Valley is especially good at revealing a mass desire to shift blame, showing how everyone the scandal touched wanted to focus on the aspect that made them feel they were the least responsible.

Writer-director: Amir Bar-Lev.

A Music Box Films release. Running time: 98 minutes. Strong adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Cosford Cinema.

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