Peanuts and Popcorn

When the Game Stands Tall (Affirm Films)

Michael Chiklis and Jim Caviezal star in “When the Game Stands Tall.” (Affirm Films)

This weekend, the faith-based film, When the Game Stands Tall, hits theaters. It is the true story about the De La Salle High School football team’s 151 winning game streak from 1992-2003, their devastating loss against a rival team and how they reclaimed their status once again. As a faith-based movie, we know that there is more to the point than just that, but that is the premise. The movie could have been the next Hoosiers. It has similar storylines and features a great cast. However, the end result is less spectacular and it is a little difficult to put into words why.

At the end of the screening I attended, audience members actually said, “Good game!” when the credits began to scroll up the screen. That’s because the game footage is actually very good and you feel like you are part of the action. Just what you would want in a sports movie. But you need to have the human element as well to have the story feel well-rounded. Through the movie features all of the “big” storylines that happened off the field including the coach’s heart attack and a shooting of one of the team’s players, things that would affect how the characters interact with each other, but the movie sort of glosses over those events. Together, these elements make for a great story. However, they don’t necessarily make a great movie.

Coach Bob Ladouceur is portrayed by Jim Caviezel who became famous for play the role of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. For an actor who is able to emote so much emotion portraying Christ it’s amazing how restrained he is portraying this coach. He hardly ever smiles, he almost always speaks in monotone and doesn’t appear to be a force of inspiration in the least. It may seem mean to say so, be he appears to be disinterested throughout the whole movie.

Laura Dern is better in the role of Bev, Ladouceur’s wife, but the movie doesn’t give her much to do except smile. There is the obligatory scene, (as with all sports movies), where Dern complains to her husband about how he isn’t really there for his family. Ladouceur agrees and then, like all other sports movies, he continues to spend more time with his team than his family. Bev continues to support her man from the sidelines anyway. (I’ve never understood how coaches in these movies can never figure out how to have a work/life balance even when it is brought to their attention.) Surely there must be more to this character, but we don’t get to see it. The movie also stars Michael Chiklis as the assistant coach and he does the best he can with it, but the script doesn’t give him much to do either. In fact, the movie is doesn’t really explore any of its characters in much depth. It is as if the story is being told from an outsider’s point of view where if we really understood what each of the characters were thinking and feeling, it would have been so much more engaging of a film.

What makes Hoosiers such a great movie is the film’s story arcs. This movie features many similar storylines that should have created a lot of dramatic tension, but instead, they don’t really go anywhere. Problems are either resolved quickly or they just aren’t addressed again. In this film, Ladouceur’s oldest son is pretty  ticked off at his father at the beginning of the film. Somehow that relationship gets healed in the end without the audience knowing how they patched things up. The movie just feels unfinished.

On the plus side, the best thing about When the Game Stands Tall is the mantras that are spoken by Ladouceur over and over again about having character on and off the field. No matter how many games the Spartans win, Ladouceur emphasizes that winning is not the point. It’s about team work. The players enter every game holding hands to the shock of onlookers. There is one player that thinks of himself as the star and of course, this is frowned upon. The other players “get” that they need each other to succeed.

This is also a faith-based movie that doesn’t feel like a faith-based movie. That might sound negative, but it isn’t. The gospel is mentioned plenty, but it is done so in a way that makes sense.  It never feels “preachy” and none of the characters are portrayed as being perfect. The movie smartly avoids adding a salvation message to the script as well. Some Christians will be frustrated by this, but if every faith-based movie focuses on salvation, then they all become the same. Instead, we get to see how “real” Christians actually live their lives.

Of course, fans of football will enjoy this film the most much like basketball fans enjoyed Hoosiers,  but what makes the latter a superior movie is its ability to reach out to people who are not sports fans and that probably had more to do with Gene Hackman’s acting than anything else. Unfortunately, Cavieziel doesn’t have the same charisma.

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