This couple - Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham - is the narrative heart of Pelada. Both had hopes of going pro. Boughen has begun to move on from this dream. Oxenham, however, dwells on what could have been and wants at least one more chance. For better and worse, each view their international interactions through their respective prisms. The two travel from country to country seeking and playing in pickup games - Buenos Aires, Casola Valsenio, Nairobi, Tokyo, Jerusalem, Tehran, and more. The fields range from concrete to grass to dirt and back. What shines through, no matter where they are, is the universal love of the game. If you have a ball and a friend, you can play. And if you can play, you will.
Erich Braun, a former University of Notre Dame star, makes an appearance in the film and discusses his inability to become a professional soccer player, despite alleging that he was better than others who became professional players in Germany. Rather than explore this theme with "why?", the question becomes whether Braun has given up hope. He has. Pelada's only fault is the frequent narrative presumption of a professional/failure dichotomy that comes across as a Hoop Dreams-lite for soccer.
But Pelada's fault is minimal. Its exploration of the game is neither psychological nor geopolitical. Director Ryan White rightly shies away from the latter - this is not "How Soccer Explains the World." Regardless, the cultural subtexts of the myriad locales make themselves apparent in Oxenham's and Boughen's inherent whiteness and the reactions to Oxenham's gender. Both race and gender matter in a visit to a La Paz prison game and gender plays a major role (obviously) in the duo's trip to Iran. Across many of the countries visited, however, skill on the pitch is what matters most, and, in the end, it's the shared joy of a simple game that makes this film.