Brandi Chastain. For one bright, shining moment women’s soccer held American’s captive with the nail biting 1999 World Cup that ended with Chastain’s game winning kick in overtime. For weeks afterward the game was a hot topic with Chastain’s shirtless celebration on the field gracing the covers of major news publications. Team leader Mia Hamm became a media darling and was offered up as the prime example that women could be as successful in sports as men. If this were a movie the triumphant women’s national team would be shown celebrating and the image would freeze and fade to black, however in the real world moments such as this are built upon a much less uplifting reality. Kate Dawson’s “Grass Ceiling” is a powerful documentary from within the ill fated Women’s United Soccer Association and shows that for every inspirational sports story there are many more tales that end in failure.
Profiling the exploits of four women within the league, Ronnie and Lorrie Fair, Mercy Akide and Gao Hong, the documentary works to show women’s soccer may come off as uplifting and empowering for the gender but also carries the same pitfalls and heartaches as any other sport. The film is split into three parts to profile the diverse backgrounds of the players.
1.Ronnie and Lorrie have been competitive since they were kids but in the world of soccer their abilities are miles apart. While Lorrie is a star and seems to take the game dead seriously, Ronnie is shown as seeing soccer as one career path of the many she could have taken. When both Ronnie and Lorrie’s performances begin to lag Ronnie admits she doesn’t see herself playing professional soccer in the future and Lorrie is faced with the horrifying realization that all her hard work may not pay off.
2. Mercy Akide is a superstar in her home of Nigeria and is striving to make a name for herself here in the states. However while she is an excellent player her tendency to use roughhouse tactics (derived from learning to play around the more physical male soccer players) turns her into a liability to her team: If she gets ejected from games for being too volatile then what good are her natural abilities? Her story is given an added dimension when one realizes that Mercy is not playing merely for herself but for her family and all of Nigeria. If she is unable to prove herself here in America then she lowers the interest in obtaining players from overseas and limits the possibilities for her fellow Africans.
3. Counteracting the instant success of Brandi Chastain is the very woman she scored upon in the World Cup, Gao Hong. Hong is 36 and her best days are behind her. She continues to play because of her love for the game but her story is given an added sadness when we realize how much she has given up to get this far. She explains how in China the life of a soccer star is a lonely one considering how much they practice and how they are perceived by their culture as too aggressive, this lifestyle does not leave much opportunity for a relationship.
While all four women are very different, their stories show that women’s soccer is no different from any other sport: It may be empowering to the younger fans but can also be brutal and unkind to the players who love to compete. This is not some “Miracle” type fairy tale but a job like any other. If there is any fault to be found with “Grass Ceiling” it is that the film tries to draw a correlation between the plights of the women and the lack of interest in the WUSA when in reality some of the contributing factors (soccer not being as beloved in the United States as it is in the rest of the world, the over saturation of other sports that compete for our attention) are never mentioned. The film works best when showing the women as individuals whose spirits are more than willing but whose bodies and personalities betray them.
By the documentary’s end most of the characters are in even worse situations then when they began and the league itself has been discontinued. This seems a fitting end to such an uncompromising film as “Grass Ceiling” that documents the painful fact that for every winner there must be a loser.