A little bit of grittiness keeps this fact-based story of a girl who plays football from getting too sugary. The talented Keke Palmer of Akeelah and the Bee gives a beautifully understated, witty, and sincere performance as Jasmine, the first girl to play quarterback in the Pop Warner Super Bowl for middle school football teams. But the credit for the movie’s tone and depth goes to two men better known for provocative, even offensive music: director Fred Durst of metal band Limp Bizkit and rapper/actor/director/entrepreneur Ice Cube, serving here as co-producer and co-star.
Ice Cube plays Curtis, whose dream of playing football was wiped out with a knee injury and whose dream of escaping his small Illinois town to go to Miami was wiped out when the local factory closed down, all-but extinguishing the economy of the community. He spends his days drinking beer, hanging out to watch the middle school football team practice, and doing his best to forgo all human contact and forget that he ever dreamed of anything.
His sister-in-law Claire (Tasha Smith) offers him $5 an hour to watch her daughter Jasmine after school. Curtis and Jasmine stay as far away from each other as possible until one day he asks her to toss him his football and he realizes she has a gift for throwing a long spiral. And she realizes he has a gift for bringing the best out of her. The coach is utterly opposed to having her on the team — until he sees her throw. The team is utterly opposed to having her on the team — until they see her courage and quick thinking. A couple of training montages and a couple of overcome setbacks later, the town is energized behind the team and everyone is feeling like a winner.
Durst does a fine job in creating the atmosphere of the depressed town but most of all he is an actor’s director. He brings out the best in his talented cast, including Smith, Matt Craven as the coach, and the bleacher bums, kibbitzers, and classmates who make up the rest of the community in the struggling small town. But he knows the heart of the story and the heart of the movie is the relationship between Curtis and his niece. Palmer is an enormously gifted young actress, here for the first time playing a character who is for a significant part of the story largely internal. She shows us Jasmine’s sensitivity and strength even when she is just reading a book by herself at a lunch table, and her interactions with Ice Cube are natural and believable.
And under Durst’s direction, Ice Cube shows us again that he can be a first-rate actor. This is the Ice Cube of “Boyz N the Hood,” “Three Kings,” and Barbershop, not the condescending, superficial performances of Are We Done Yet and All About the Benjamins
. He gives a layered, subtle portrayal and it is a pleasure to watch him bloom along with Jasmine.