Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary Happy Valley opens up at a Penn State football game. In glorious, colorful, slow-motion shots, we see the joy that comes out of football: the fans with faces painted white and blue, the cheerleaders’ perfect yells, the teeming wave of people coming together for this particular moment. There is a community that forms around football here in State College, Pennsylvania, the “Happy Valley” where Penn State’s campus is located. It is nearly perfect. There is a mural featuring some of the community’s heroes, like the Penn State football coaches. It is ripe for a fall.
A fall is what happens once the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, a longtime assistant coach for Penn State, come to light in 2012. Sandusky was guilty of 45 counts of child sex abuse, for cases that took place throughout the 90s and the 2000s. With the news that there had been a predator in the midst of the tight-knit community of Penn State football for years, this horror ripples out into the administration, and to the much-loved head coach of Penn State, Joe Paterno.
Bar-Lev brings up the idea of there being “a moral question” regarding what Paterno knew about Sandusky’s affairs and what he did about it. (He had seen something untoward in a shower and filed a report, and then that was the extent, basically.) Paterno was seen as the heart of Penn State football — a man devoted to a winning team, a father figure to generations of young men who he shaped into winners and academics, and principled enough that he turned down NFL money in order to stay at Penn State. The Sandusky case turns this ideal — the man that, if you’re into Friday Night Lights, was the embodiment of “Coach” — on its head.
But what this documentary has to say about a sad story is all-too-familiar, these days. Colleges have been showing their colors regarding sexual abuse on campus, turning something traumatic into a bureaucratic nightmare that never gets closure. Institutions don’t know how to deal with systematic abuse, and they act in their own best interests, covering it up when they can. It’s striking to see how people — from Penn State fans to Paterno himself — react in the light of this harsh, truthful glare.
There’s a striking scene set next to a statue of Paterno. A man stands next to it, protesting its existence, as Paterno aided and abetted pedophiles. The Penn State fans going to the game react strongly towards this man’s protests. Fights break out. “That’s why you don’t build statues to people that are alive,” a man concludes.
Bar-Lev doesn’t take a strong stance, either way, reporting on the feelings, shame, and disappointment that have circled outward from the Penn State scandal. Rather, he captures a moment where hero-worship is proven to be flawed, where a community is struck with the harshest blow, but Happy Valley may be at its most powerful when it shows how sexual abuse ripples out into the world.
Even though it could be argued that “justice was served” regarding the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, the effects that it left on the Penn State community are still reverberating. It’s something that has relevance in the (many) cases of sexual abuse, and abuse of power that we hear on a daily basis. If only we could figure out a way to stop turning a blind eye.