Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story was not the talk of Tinseltown ahead of Sunday's 85th Academy Awards. Overlooked for Best Documentary Feature, it is unlikely this low-budget, independent film will ever register with mainstream audiences. Yet award show nominations and red carpet invitations are not the yardsticks by which to measure the impact of Rise & Shine. Writer-producer-directors Ranko Tutulugdzija and Nick Lewis never had such lofty aims. Their objective was always much more elemental: to tell a story.
Rise & Shine is the 21st century's quintessential American narrative, a rags-to-riches tale about a teenager from Wisconsin who, with a bit of luck and a lot perseverance, realised his dream of playing professional football in Europe. Tutulugdzija, a former team-mate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Lewis meticulously trace Jay DeMerit's career from an undrafted college graduate to the captain of Watford and a regular in the national team set-up. Interviews with the protagonist, his family, his English "family", childhood friends, team-mates, coaches, and fans, reveal that DeMerit's breakthrough was never a question of if he could cut it at the top level but when he would be given the opportunity to prove himself. Success was never guaranteed, but when the opportunities finally arrived DeMerit unequivocally seized the moments.
On a broader level, Rise & Shine highlights the precarious path of a professional footballer and the fine line between success and failure. Teeming with themes of adversity and redemption, the film's central message suggests that all it takes is a lot of hard work to succeed on the pitch. Yet interviews with several seasoned figures of the game, including Fulham's Ray Lewington and former Arsenal scout Henry Weatherly, reveal that sometimes there are greater, uncontrollable forces at play. The stigma of being an American in Europe, broken promises, injuries, and the lack of infrastructure for youth development in Major League Soccer were all hurdles that DeMerit overcame, but which many do not.
It is worth re-emphasising that Rise & Shine is a low-budget, independent film. Directorial debutants Tutulugdzija and Lewis admirably convey DeMerit's career in an engaging manner, but the film is not without flaws. The soundtrack leaves something to be desired. Dramatic scores are employed far too often during the most mundane interviews. For hardcore soccer fans (i.e. the film's primary audience), the narration could be considered a tad too simplistic. Most frustratingly, several interviews with the likes of national team captain Carlos Bocanegra, the New York Times' Jeré Longman, and DeMerit's host family appear too briefly, forced, or altogether unnecessary.
Fittingly, the moments that resonate strongest with its audience are not these carefully staged interviews, but the raw, unedited glimpses of DeMerit's career on and off the pitch. Grainy footage from a varsity basketball game in high school, an email to a friend back home after he received his first professional contract with Watford, and home video that DeMerit filmed himself throughout the 2010 World Cup are the types of pivotal moments that even DeMerit has trouble succinctly conveying in his interviews.
For Hollywood executives, Rise & Shine is a reminder that not all great movies are created in studios with flashy effects, clever scripts, and big budget productions. Some stories are already out there waiting to be told. And if they happen to take place on a football pitch, then it makes them that much sweeter. For the rest of us, Jay DeMerit's story is a remarkable source of inspiration for anyone who has ever doubted their will to succeed at doing something they love.