WASHINGTON — The sweat of August football practice is about to give way to the Friday Night Lights of September.
Before you break out your cowbells and seat cushions, you can get in the mood by watching “When the Game Stands Tall,” which chronicles the nation’s ultimate high school football program — California private school De La Salle.
After winning 151 games in a row — the longest winning streak in sports history — the burden of decade-long perfection finally buckled the shoulder pads of an incoming class still grieving the 2004 death of hometown hero Terrance Kelly.
“I think I underestimated the impact the death of Terrance Kelly had on that team,” head coach Bob Ladouceur tells WTOP. “He was their team captain when they were all juniors. … Two days before we started our padded practice, we were going to his funeral on a bus. That was our first bus ride as a team. … It kind of preoccupied a lot of our thoughts and stole our motivation away.”
While those events unfolded on the West Coast, the story will no doubt hit close to home for Maryland viewers, recalling perennial powerhouse Urbana High School, which lost both its 50-game winning streak and hometown hero Billy Gaines within the span of a year in 2003.
When tragedy strikes, groups of teenage boys learn very quickly how to become men.
It should be noted that the opening credits say, “Inspired by a True Story,” rather than “based on.” The disclaimer is important, as the film takes plenty of creative license, moving a dramatic 2001 game into the 2004 season and inventing star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) from a mix of real-life alum Maurice Jones-Drew and “Friday Night Lights” fullback Don Billingsley, daddy issues and all.
WTOP Digital Sports Editor Noah Frank attended De La Salle during the streak, and breaks down the fact vs. fiction on our sports page. You can also hear Ladouceur’s thoughts on the film by clicking the above audio of our Q&A, in which he says he felt a bit uncomfortable by all the Hollywood attention.
“It kind of goes a little bit against what we preached throughout the years,” he tells WTOP. “We never wanted to put ourselves out front. We wanted to be very humble about what we did and how we did it.”
As for the movie itself, the filmmaking is a lot like the players it portrays, coasting way too much in the beginning, thinking it can get by on reputation alone, before digging down deep for a solid finish.
The first half is at best sloppy and at worst lazy, painting its characters as tired archetypes from the football movie playbook and whacking us over the head with themes that carry all the subtlety of a crackback block. Ryan’s father (Clancy Brown) is a direct Tim McGraw ripoff as the vicariously living parent, while a player actually tells his cocky teammate, “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.'” This isn’t “Bull Durham” spoofing sports cliches; this film is trying to play it straight.
The dialogue becomes even more on the nose as Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) comes home to his wife (Laura Dern) to discuss the strain of coaching on his family. The words feel wooden in the soft-spoken performance of Caviezel, whose “Passion of the Christ” lacks the passion of the coach. It’s as if the film took Denzel Washington out of the Gettsyburg scene in “Remember the Titans” and infused him with the Daniel Day-Lewis calm of “Lincoln” (look also for a “Last of the Mohicans” reference). The understated performance could have worked on its own, as a contrast to the Al Pacinos of football movies past, but when applied to the heavy-handed exposition, the combination is a bit underwhelming.
Thankfully, director Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter”) and screenwriter Thomas Marshall Smith (“Men of Honor”) make strong halftime adjustments. Precisely when the streak is broken, the on-screen players and off-screen filmmakers snap out of their false sense of inevitability and get back to fundamentals.
The film hits its stride as the team prepares for a big game against cross-state rival Long Beach Poly. Not only does the game feature the most authentic on-field action in recent memory, it’s also given a proper emotional setup, as Ladouceur brings his players to visit amputees at a veterans hospital.
When a lineman jokes, “Sometimes in practice, I wish I couldn’t feel my legs,” a legless vet gives him a reality check: “No, you don’t.” The touching scene recalls a post-game speech by former Miami Hurricanes star Kellen Winslow Jr., who shouted, “I’m a soldier!” No, you’re not. You’re a football player.
In this way, the movie keeps a consistent pulse on what really matters in life.
The messaging isn’t great, but the message is: There’s more to life than football.
Sometimes it’s a puny third-stringer sacrificing his body to force a key fourth down.
Sometimes it’s a coach putting the health of his players over the numbers on the scoreboard.
And sometimes it’s a father-son morality stand that’s just as powerful as any goal-line stand.
The combination builds toward an admirably humble climax that leaves us ready to walk out of the theater on a high. Just then, the film’s sloppy start rears its ugly head, reminding us of its flaws.
Instead of letting the on-field action speak for itself, we cut to the bleachers for more exposition as a parent asks, “Why did that happen?”, and another parent is more than happy to explain.
But of course. Everything is explained in this movie. Frustratingly so.
Note to filmmakers: trust your audience.
They’re smarter than you think.
A little subtlety goes a long way.
Directors are like quarterbacks. You can either deliver your plot points with head fakes on a receiver’s double move, or you can telegraph exactly where you’re going to throw by staring down your receiver.
One results in touchdowns. The other gets picked off.
And so, “When the Game Stands Tall” will get picked apart by most critics. These guys are ball hawks, even if most have never played a down. It’s a shame because it isn’t a bad movie. It’s deliberately, almost defiantly “decent.” Football families will find moments of pure inspiration. They simply deserve better from a real-life story this remarkable, a head coach this transformational and values this eternal.
★ ★ 1/2
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason’s Fraley Film Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum, listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM and see a full list of his stories on our “Fraley on Film” page.