By Tripp Stelnicki

Near the end of Happy Valley, Matt Sandusky, adopted son and sexual assault victim of Jerry Sandusky, wanders slowly through a hardware store, examining different shelved items. Although the symbolism of the scene is a bit on the nose, it articulates the essential question of Amir Bar-Lev’s thorough film: When everything around us has been torn down, how do we rebuild?

True/False Film Review: Happy Valley

Photo courtesy of True/False Film Fest

In grainy interview footage, Joe Paterno, the late Penn State idol, asserts in his calmly authoritative way that his role as a football coach is about more than winning football games; it’s about facilitating the growth of the young men entrusted to him. “Hopefully we never lose sight of that,” he says.

Bar-Lev’s film examines Paterno and ultimately arrives at a sympathetic conclusion. The man who coached football in State College, Penn., for 45 years was, at best, genuinely haunted by his inaction when presented with evidence of his defensive coordinator's sexual misconduct, and naïve at worst. “I should have done more,” he told his biographer, Joe Posnanski. Paterno was an undeniably good man — perhaps a great one, and Posnanski defensively itemizes the coach's acts of integrity. But the film isn’t interested in black-and-white characterizations. “Is Joe Paterno’s admirable life negated by the fact that he didn’t do enough in this one critical instance?” Bar-Lev shows that this is the question over which most people inside Happy Valley seem to agonize. Joe Paterno was a great person and football coach and he absolutely should have done more to help these victims. That’s who he was, and it’s how he’ll be remembered by everyone outside of the State College hivemind.

Bar-Lev is considerably less sympathetic toward that hivemind, or Happy Valley, which has collectively learned nothing from the 2011 rape scandal. Somehow, in its fervent worship of a football program that Paterno built and sustained, they have forgotten what the man in the pulpit was actually about. Bar-Lev’s footage and interviews with football fans and Paterno’s eldest son betray the community’s lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims — in fact, the community feels victimized itself by an opportunistic media, an unforgiving NCAA and outsiders who don’t understand how much football means to them.

“[The] 2012 [football season] was hard for me,” a Penn State student says to Bar-Lev. “It’s not a Penn State issue,” Jay Paterno says. “My school is ruined,” a local historian bemoans. The community doesn’t grasp, or chooses to ignore, its own implicit involvement in the construction of the kind of local empire that would rather cover up an abominable string of abuse than endanger its beloved football program. As one interviewee hypothesizes, the Jerry Sandusky abuse case probably wouldn’t have happened anywhere else.

Bar-Lev’s film opens with a series of shots that highlight the breadth of the media circus in 2011 and is intercut throughout with audio montages of aggressive, uninformed opinions from television and radio talking heads. Happy Valley is the sober reflection, the necessary insight into a terrible story that attention-deficient traditional media outlets could not then provide. It’s an examination of the fear, guilt, accountability, anger, ambiguity and despair that one horrible man was able to inflict upon a Pennsylvania community, and it is an unflinchingly honest glance at the massive rebuilding endeavor that still awaits it.

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