As I booted up my computer to watch the new rowing film, “Dare to Be,” I couldn’t help thinking back to 1985, when I was invited along with a few hundred people in the Boston rowing community to see the U.S. premiere of “The Boy in Blue,” a biopic of Canadian sculler Ned Hanlan starring Nicholas Cage. We all held our breath that this would do for rowing what a good sports movie should—fire up our imaginations, show the beauty, the grace, and the toughness that the sport requires, and get people talking about rowing. But as we left the theater after the disappointment of seeing Cage scull to victory in the 19th century, a friend wondered, “Why does every filmmaker try to make “Rocky Goes Rowing?”
Adam Reist avoids that pitfall. “Dare to Be” is a documentary and Reist wisely doesn’t focus on whether the subjects he followed over the course of four years will win or not. Instead, we get a bit of rowing history, some high school rowing, and learn more about the tremendous impact of Title IX and the difficulty of getting back onto the national team as mavericks operating outside the training center model.
The 90-minute film follows the progress and setbacks of three distinct cohorts of rowers: a high school sculler who is the filmmaker’s daughter; a college rower, Abby Young of Yale; and a pair of national-teamers, Sara Hendershot and Sarah Zelenka.
The film’s celebration of women’s rowing is a good thing. But this viewer would have liked to have seen even more on what differentiates these three groups of athletes. One approach would have been to focus more on the national team women who have met with such phenomenal success on the international stage.
Eleven consecutive gold medals in the women’s eight is so stunning that it could easily serve as the centerpiece of a rowing movie. We do hear from their coach, Tom Terhaar, and what he says is appropriately sagacious—like all of the coaches who are filmed—but it made me want to hear from and see the women from that incredible team.
There was a time when any new film that featured rowing would be a cause for celebration. Rowing is incredibly photogenic. The rhythmic motion of the oars is visually exciting. Watching the strong, young bodies of the oarswomen work through their training regimes, one feels tremendous respect for their dedication and their motivation. This is a beautiful activity, but it is a hard activity. And “Dare to Be” indeed features a lot of superb camera work.
Of course, making a film where the principals are young has its challenges. You need to choose someone with the potential to be great. Because it is so hard to attain greatness in a sport like rowing, and so difficult to predict who will grow and find success in ways that are dramatic for the screen, it is a crap shoot. To Reist’s credit, he is not interested in showing just what happens to winners. The narrative works well enough even though each group falls a little short of their goal.
Who is the audience for this film? Well, rowers, one might suppose. But there are a number of moments where we hear athletes talking about rowing that will offer few new insights to current rowers. So the more likely audience is people who have not rowed, perhaps parents or relatives or the habitually curious sports fan. Ultimately, the power and beauty Reist captures so well is “Dare to Be’s” greatest strength—a sublime look at an often difficult path.