The Penn State football team is off to a 4-2 start this season, and more than 100,000 fans will file into Beaver Stadium on Oct. 24 when their beloved Nittany Lions take on their rivals from Ohio State. James Franklin is Penn State’s first-year head coach—but he still operates in the shadow of the late, legendary Joe Paterno, who raised Penn State to national prominence during his 62 years with the university’s football program.
Paterno infamously was forced out in 2011 after a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of sexually abusing children. Questions remain whether Paterno could or should have done more to investigate suspicions and claims in the years before the scandal exploded. Happy Valley, a new documentary from Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story), is about Penn State football and the near-religious fervor that Paterno’s unparallelled success bred over the decades. But it’s not just about Penn State. It’s also about the deification of American sports heroes, and the compromised relationship between a billion-dollar sports industry and the universities that enable it.
“We really tried to make a film that provides a prism of different perspectives,” Bar-Lev said in January, before the documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. “I hope that the film provokes people to ask themselves questions about their own pantheon of saints and heroes and villains. The reason it’s an interesting story is because it’s a universal story.”
Happy Valley opens in New York on Nov. 19.