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Sundance Institute
Fihi Kaufusi is featured in the film "In Football We Trust."

“In Football We Trust” is not the first film to paint the dream of professional sports as an all-or-nothing venture, but it may be the first to suggest that religion offers an alternative path to happiness.

The documentary that was filmed in Utah is screening this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Its focus is the state’s Polynesian population, the powerful forces that define its experience and the sport that has captured its heart.

“In Football We Trust” showcases the Polynesian experience by tracking the lives of four Utah high school football players: Harvey Langi, Fihi Kaufusi and brothers Leva and Vita Bloomfield.

Of the group, Langi is the best known, having played for the University of Utah before serving an LDS mission and transferring to BYU. Kaufusi played for a dominant Highland High team before a knee injury directed him to a mission as well. The Bloomfield brothers played for Hunter High School.

Early on, the film plays out like a simple success story. Representatives of a minority population achieve disproportionate success on the field. They are under a lot of pressure to succeed, and the usual lures of partying and girls are ever-present. But they have a lot of support at home.

Interviews with the boys and their families are intercut with clips featuring well-known Polynesian NFL veterans: Vai Sikahema, Haloti Ngata, Star Lotulelei and two-time Super Bowl champion Troy Polamalu.

The challenges the boys face are similar to those we’ve seen before, especially in “Friday Night Lights,” the 2004 adaptation of the book Buzz Bissinger wrote after spending a season embedded with the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas.

But as “In Football We Trust” moves along, a positive sheen pulls back to reveal the complicated depth of the Polynesian experience, and the documentary becomes a dramatic contrast between philosophical extremes.

On the one side, you have the boys’ spiritual anchor. Many of the Polynesians living in Utah are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, descended from family members who became converts to the church in Tonga or Samoa. The LDS Church is a perfect fit for the family-focused Polynesian culture, and “In Football We Trust” shows the boys involved in services, giving talks in meetings, etc.

But the spiritual values just make the flip side all the more vivid. For all the emphasis on religion and family, Polynesians teens in Utah also face pressure from some of the most notorious gangs in the Salt Lake Valley. Leva and Vita Bloomfield’s own father founded one of the first Polynesian gangs in Utah.

“In Football We Trust” gives an intimate perspective on these four young men as they try to navigate the push and pull between these forces, and they lean hard on the game that keeps them centered. The lure of the NFL feels like a reachable dream, and each of the boys has enough family members in prison to know where poor decisions might lead.

At times the film echoes another Sundance documentary, “Hoop Dreams,” which followed the efforts of a pair of Chicago teenagers who aspired to the NBA. Like that effort, “In Football We Trust” was filmed over a long enough space of time to capture a generous journey. As a result, we see plenty of setbacks along the way.

Their stumbles are all the more painful when you realize the opportunities these boys are risking. In one scene, Langi’s mother — one of the most vibrant personalities in the film — demonstrates the financial stakes of his behavior. Surrounded by the family in a sort of makeshift intervention, she scribbles the six-figure value of a Stanford scholarship on an oversized piece of paper, then tears it up in front of his face.

Of course, that moment pales when one of the Bloomfield boys gets caught with a gun at school. Local news reports intercut with footage at the police station make the sequence heartbreakingly real.

The most vivid stretch of the film takes place during one of Kaufusi’s games when, after suffering a knee injury, he repeatedly talks his way back into the game to keep playing. Director Tony Vainuku captures all of the sideline interactions and dialogue, making the step-by-step sequence almost haunting.

Overall, the documentary is well made and well executed, and it tells a compelling story. But its greatest strength may be its own honesty. “In Football We Trust” celebrates the culture and successes of its subjects, but it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of their day-to-day existence.

The film “In Football We Trust” is not rated. However, it contains profanity that would merit an R rating. There are multiple uses of the F-word, most of which occur during two scenes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.