"I'm in a wheelchair. This sucks." So says Keith Cavill, a quadriplegic who lost the use of his legs and much of his hands in a motocross accident and is just attempting to adjust to life out of rehab. It's the closest to self-pity that anyone in the entertaining documentary Murderball comes. The film (which had its local screening at this year's CineVegas Film Festival) follows quadriplegics who engage in the titular sport, more commonly known as wheelchair rugby. In specially modified chairs, the disabled athletes compete in a rough, full-contact game played on a basketball court. They're as physical and as boisterous as any other athletes, talking trash and indulging in rivalries.
Directors Rubin and Shapiro don't patronize their subjects or us, portraying the players realistically and sympathetically but without kid gloves. They delve into such touchy subjects as the sexuality of quadriplegics and the guilt of one man responsible for his friend's injuries. Mostly though, the film is exuberant and exciting.
They also luck out by stumbling onto a rivalry worthy of any good sports movie. Former USA Paralympic team player Joe Soares, cut from the squad, defects to the Canadian team as head coach, and the two teams engage in a tense, close game at the 2002 World Championships in Sweden. Canada wins by a nose, setting up a grudge match at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
Rubin and Shapiro spend too much time with the competitive, sometimes abrasive Soares, especially since some of the Team USA players who get less screen time seem as interesting. Their other star is USA player Mark Zupan, whose complex relationship with the friend whose drunk driving mained him is fascinating and a bit underplayed.
Murderball is so eager to show quadriplegics living normal lives that it could be accused of downplaying the hardships, but given how often we've seen disabled people struggling to get by, the opposite portrayal is refreshing.