When the Game Stands Tall (★★½) is an efficient, if somewhat inconsequential, sports melodrama. I enjoyed it, but then I am the kind of viewer who can watch the last ten minutes of Vision Quest every time it’s on television and still mist up when Louden steps on the mat for the last time.
Actually, the ability or desire to re-watch isolated scenes is a pretty good acid test for whether a sports film is an effective narrative or simply its own highlight reel. One could fairly easily come into the middle or the end of this story about what happens when a 151 game high-school football winning streak is snapped and know exactly what is going on. By contrast, many of the scenes in The Blind Side or The Natural depend for their drama on — or at least have their drama enhanced by — scenes earlier in the film that place the sporting contest in a context that makes you care about the people as much as the result of the athletic contest.
When the Game Stands Tall gestures in that direction, but it seems curiously skittish about developing any one of the themes more than any other. When Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) has a heart attack, he chastises himself as a phony for preaching commitment to his team but neglecting his own family. Yet once he is cleared by his doctor to resume coaching duties he is shipped back to the sidelines with an affirming but somewhat incoherent speech from his wife (Laura Dern) about how it is time to let him go. In an early scene, opposing coaches complain that the Catholic High School has an unfair recruiting advantage over public schools. The coach, and the film, sidesteps that issue by affirming they don’t offer scholarships and saying that excellent programs make young men want to play in them. That may be true, but it skirts the question of why those young men have that choice in some instances and not in others.
Perhaps most importantly, the coach leads the team in a Bible lesson outlining a belief in providential (or karmic) theology, insinuating that the results on the field may be a metric of how one has lived in other areas of his life. That theological (and cultural) interpretation of events is challenged by one of his players, and while the discussion that ensues is more nuanced than I am used to seeing in most “Christian” movies, the counter-argument is ultimately dismissed rather than ever meaningfully rebutted. At other times the coach cautions his players not to define themselves by a score and insists that “it’s only [a high-school football] game,” making it less than clear (to me) what is being hinted at in the film’s Bible lesson.
That said, even though the whole is less than the sum of the parts, the parts are often thoughtful and effective. Director Thomas Carter will always be Hayward from The White Shadow to me, and his film(s) share with that show an ability to diffuse the traditional protagonist focus of narrative drama onto an ensemble cast. I mean that in a positive way. One very much feels the dynamic of a group of people who live and work together and who can love one another without always liking each other in the present moment.
The most interesting aspect of the film, for me, was the connection the coaches drew between the team’s success and the young men’s willingness to feel and share emotions. For all of the rightful emphasis placed on the way contemporary society pressures and damages young women by placing ridiculous and unhealthy expectations on them, we may be even more uncomfortable looking at how cultural stereotypes can hurt boys trying to become men. I would argue that the number of times one male says “I love you” to another male (or group of men) in this film is pretty culturally subversive. A scene in which a player kisses a photo of another male is also a touching–and slightly more subtle–reminder of how the ability to express oneself emotionally is a necessity if one is going to develop into a healthy adult able to grow from (rather than simply withstand) life’s most painful experiences.