The documentary spends a year with south Texas high school kids studying mariachi.
High schools from all over Texas compete in the state University Interscholastic League (UIL) competition for mariachi. Going Varsity in Mariachi spends a year with the kids and instructor of Mariachi Oro at Edinburg North High School as they grow together and rehearse for the state competition. Co-directors Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn take us into this world of intense preparation. The documentary, which premiered at Sundance this week, builds a steady momentum through the final performance, when things come to an emotional finish.
Abel Acuña leads and inspires the varsity-level group in Edinburg. He talks about his love for mariachi, but is open about his feelings of teacher burnout. Since it’s the first school year in-person since COVID, there are many new students in the group who haven’t performed before. Going Varsity in Mariachi spends time with the seniors: Captain Bella helps lead the group, guitarron player Drake has limited experience with the instrument, shy violinist Abby dreams of a life away from home, and cute couple Marlena and Mariah wonder about a future outside of Texas.
Vasquez and Osborn use the familiar “we’re going to states” storytelling structure here, so the film is comforting in that predictability, but this doesn’t make it any less emotional to watch the kids perform and compete. At one point, Mr. Acuña asks the students what mariachi means to them, and we can hear and feel their answers in the varsity group’s performance.
The loud, abrasive scoring in Going Varsity in Mariachi is overwhelming; when showcasing the songs the students are playing, I thought it would be more poignant. Perhaps this is more of an audio mixing issue, but it’s a small complaint as far as the enjoyment the documentary delivers. The energy the kids bring to the stage shines through. I felt like I was really in the audience at the competition, cheering them on.