Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
I’m a sucker for sports films. Seeing the way that a particular game can bring individuals together and create a sense of unity and pride is thrillingly unique, particularly on the big screen. Not all sports films are created equal, and that’s apparent in When the Game Stands Tall. It’s inconsistently moving fare, but also an impassioned cry for togetherness and maturity with sports as the defining catalyst. There’s something strange about how it’s presented on screen, surrounded by death, heartbreak, doubt, happiness, abuse, laughter, and pretty much any other cinematic element you can draw up in your mind. There are many loud moments, telling the audience that something big and emotional is happening! But the film works when it embraces the quietness of its endeavors, looking into the characters and letting them foster on screen. When the characters talk about ideas, the film strays; when they get into who they are as people, we care.
The film tells the story of the De La Salle High School football team, who rose from obscurity due to an 151-game winning streak that stands as the longest winning streak in American sports history. Their coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), has received offers from many prestigious colleges to coach their teams, but he always refuses. He says that students in college don’t give him as much to teach them; he likes the idea of fostering these students into good, moral citizens. There’s something honorable about a man profoundly embracing his profession in education. He teaches discipline and family for the team, which a lot of time emphasizes religion and the importance of God upon their lives. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. After the team wins yet another state championship, they must prepare their juniors to lead the squad next year. That includes his son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), and star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig).
Danny feels disassociated from his father due to a strained coaching relationship and his father’s stern nature. Chris has to deal with a verbally and mentally abusive father, Mickey (Clancy Brown), who insists that his son break the state’s touchdown record and never lets him lose sight of the goal. The film focuses on many other subplots, including one involving the seniors that are heading off to college and getting accepted to great programs like Oregon. But there are endless hardships for everyone involved, particularly after their winning streak snaps with the new set of juniors. The story addresses that element early on, setting up the streak as an embattled part of their high school careers. Can they overcome such a heartbreaking, devastating loss? Or will they let this streak and its end define them? Thomas Carter’s film weaves all of these stories around the idea that their team is a family, one that must stick together and support one another through anything and everything.
When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve; it’s all over the front and back of the jersey like large white numbers. The film is rocky tonally and conceptually, often falling flat on developing supporting characters and instead having them talk a lot about concepts and beliefs. There’s an abundance of stories with heavy moral values, an accepted truth of a film with religion as the underlying factor that ties together all of these narratives. Carter doesn’t just allow his film to preach religion, though, but allows it to act as a means of understanding these characters. The film shows doubt as a psychological struggle that some of the players face when one of their most talented players is murdered. Why would a just world let such an unjust act happen? There are too many exaggerated scenes that beg these kinds of questions for the film to coherently flow, but luckily the narrative depends on the game of football itself in the second half to infuse excitement and needed drama into the characters’ lives. It’s a faulty journey, but it’s a well-made sports drama that has a strong payoff.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)