When The Game Stands Tall, the latest inspirational extracurricular-activity story from director Thomas Carter (Coach Carter, Save The Last Dance), offers a welcome tweak on the underdog sports formula. Its central characters—the players and coaches of the De La Salle Spartans high school football team—aren’t scrappy nobodies making an unlikely bid for a championship trophy, but top-ranked elites struggling to rebuild their confidence after losing their first game in 12 years. It is, in other words, a movie about humility, a theme Scott Marshall Smith’s script approaches mostly in religious terms, complete with chapter-and-verse quotations and a Job figure, who comes in the form of future University Of Oregon recruiting bust Cam Colvin (Ser’Darius Blain).
Fittingly, the movie’s qualities are modest ones: It’s largely underplayed and hoorah-free, with head coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) rarely raising his voice above a soft indoor murmur; it’s slick-looking—full of diffusion filters, inky shadows, and artificial lens flares—but hardly ostentatious; and its Christian overtones feel true to life, with coachspeak (“perfect effort”) and the New Testament serving as a lingua franca for the characters, who come from different denominations and have differing social backgrounds and values.
Of course, the problem with this kind of modesty is that it’s difficult to get excited about it; it’s easier to appreciate what When The Games Stands Tall doesn’t do than it is to admire what it does. Ladouceur’s restrained air makes him a credibly paternal leader, but it also makes him emotionally opaque, which wouldn’t be a problem if he weren’t continually telling his players not to bottle up their emotions. Late in the movie, when he speaks of his failings as a husband and father, it comes across as disingenuous—not on the part of his character, but on the part of the film, which mostly avoids emotional tension and argument. (The one exception is Mickey Ryan, the archetypal overbearing sports dad played by Clancy Brown.)
Douglas Sirk, definitive stylist of the Hollywood melodrama, famously joked that “life is the most melodramatic story of all,” and When The Game Stands Tall—which is set in 2004, when the real-life Spartans not only lost their winning streak, but also had to deal with Ladouceur’s health problems and the murder of a star player—is full of turns that would be called convoluted if they were wholly fictional. It seems as though, in order to restrain the story’s inherent melodrama, Carter and Smith have erred on the side of too much modesty. For all the pains the movie takes to explain why someone shouldn’t play football—to win, to be a star, to defeat others—it never bothers to explain why someone should play the game. It’s a collection of well-intentioned absences with no defining presence to speak of.