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Sundance: For embattled Matt Sandusky, a rare moment of redemption

By Steven Zeitchik

8:17 PM PST, January 20, 2014

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PARK CITY, Utah--Since the Jerry Sandusky scandal blew up several years ago, there have been few figures quieter than Matt Sandusky, the adult son of the convicted sex offender.

The younger Sandusky has stayed entirely out of the public eye, even after he came forward with an offer to testify against his adoptive father at the close of the trial.

That changed on Sunday, when the documentarian Amir Bar-Lev premiered "Happy Valley," his new movie about Joe Paterno, Penn State and the fallout from the Sandusky affair. Matt Sandusky appears in the film and is its emotional through-line, first describing how he was plucked from his impoverished childhood and adopted by Sandusky, and later how he was abused by the Penn State football coach.

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After the screening, a standing ovation greeted Matt Sandusky, who choked back tears as he came to the front of the theater.

"It's been quite a journey from where I started," Sandusky said, his voice quavering. "My story has been told so many times by so people. This was an opportunity for me to come forward and start to explain my role, my life, my story."

It's hardly a simple tale. Matt Sandusky initially denied any abuse at the hands of his father. "I had to be loyal to the family. I wasn't going to betray him," he says in the film. But he decided finally to step forward when he heard the of the testimony of one of the victims.

It was a courageous move, not only psychologically but also practically; as the rare named victim in the case, Matt Sandusky has been the subject of bile from conspiracy theorists who believe the trial was a plot to bring down Paterno and Penn State. (He initially declined to participate in the film for fear of exposing himself and his family to further hatred, but agreed in November, prompting Bar-Lev to crash on an interview and re-order the movie just ahead of the Sundance deadline.)

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Bar-Lev, who previously explored another touchstone narrative with a football backdrop in "The Tillman Story," has not made a film about the legal aspects of the Sandusky case and who is culpable in that regard; he is more keen to explore the fallout in the town and the slippery nature of heroism and responsibility. (You can read more about it in Kenneth Turan's excellent piece.) Central to the film is Joe Paterno--who knew of some of the allegations and took only limited action--and the broader questions his involvement raises, in terms of both the issues of legacy and moral responsibility.

"This is more of an inquiry than a look at the conspiracy,"  Bar-Lev said. "Here's a guy who represented the paragon of virtue for half a century. This is what he did with that information and here are the different opinions....It's a moral parable that makes you ask questions about yourself."

For Matt Sandusky that parable was all too real. But as a married father of several children who has begun to explain the actions of their grandfather to them, he said that he hopes he is headed toward healing, if not closure.  "The ending (of the film) is what I want to be seen," he said. It's "my family and everything we've endured and been through, we've learned to come together and rely on each other."

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