What makes a football team a successful band of brothers? Is their family forged on the grassy gridiron with a crowd cheering on? Is the camaraderie created within the concrete walls of a locker room? Or is brotherhood earned by good character and altruistic deeds done in the outside world? According to director Thomas Carter’s sports-themed drama WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL, fraternity can be found in all these things. Blending a human interest story with intense sports sequences, the true-life tale is real game-changer for both sports films and faith-based filmmaking.
Up until 2003, De La Salle High School had the winningest football team in all of sports history – NFL and college included. During that fateful season, due to multiple unforeseen circumstances, the Spartans managed to break their 151-game winning streak and record-busting 12 straight State Championships. As many of the senior class members move on, it’s up to the juniors to triumph against adversity in 2004. And boy do they have an uphill battle! If dealing with Coach Bob Ladouceur’s (Jim Caviezel) heart-attack isn’t enough, former teammate T.K. Kelly (Stephan James) is senselessly gunned down. Plus a few team members are having a hard time with their Dads – both abusive ones like Chris Ryan’s (Alexander Ludwig) father (Clancy Brown), and absentee ones like Coach Lad, whose son Danny (Matthew Daddario) penalizes his father for not being more than a coach. It’s going to take a lot of faith and eschewing egos to get the team back on track.
So does WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL out-blues VARSITY BLUES? No. Does it hit you in the gut like RUDY or BRIAN’S SONG? Not really. But it excels in other dynamic ways. What’s so refreshing about the story is that the main conflict isn’t so much about what caused the losses (it never points the finger at what exactly disrupted “The Streak”). Rather, it’s about how the team unites during times of extreme hardship. It’s the right amount of sentiment with a side of sports. Though it lacks subtlety, spelling everything out for viewers, its heart is pure and that’s admirable. Game sequences are perfectly composed, with the audience feeling as if they are on the field with the players. It rivals the pristine game day footage of NFL Films. And most importantly, when it comes to the faith-based aspects, it really underplays its hand. Though there are a few mentions of Bible verses, talk of a purity pledge, and the Lord’s prayer said in the locker room, the film emphasizes good moral doctrine over proselytizing. It’s never preachy, over-bearing or melodramatic.
Though Scott Marshall Smith’s script – working off the novel of the same name by Neil Hayes – has a lot of great qualities, it also holds a few maladies. Whether it’s Cam Colvin’s (Ser’Darius Blain) struggle with his faith, or Chris’ problems with his pushy father, or Tayshon Lannear’s (Jessie Usher) ego being kept in check, each character is only given a small window of screen time for their arc – if they get one at all. It barely manages to flesh out coaching partner Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis) into anything beyond one-dimensional. Also, for the few times we hear Coach Lad’s supportive wife Bev (played by the always fantastic Laura Dern) and son Danny complain about not knowing the real man behind the persona, we don’t get the sense this problem ever gets solved. Furthermore the scene in the VA hospital feels a tad on the exploitative side. It lingers a little too long when it could have made its point in a more succinct manner.
The only things separating my beloved alma mater San Ramon Valley High School (Go Wolves!) and our rival De La Salle are a few exits on the 680 freeway and a lot of wins on the playing field. Therefore, despite my journalistic desire to never pre-judge a film, I went into my screening slightly biased. But I felt no schadenfreude watching their struggles on the field. The film wears its heart on its sleeve, and its message is resonant without an ounce of pandering.
3.5 out of 5
WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL opens on August 22 and is rated PG.
Courtney Howard is the Senior Editor/ LA Correspondent for VeryAware.com. She also is a contributing writer for ReelVixen.com, ThatsItMommy.com, and RockinMama.net. She resides in Southern California with her husband and perfect little dachshund.