“When The Game Stands Tall” is an ambitious attempt to tell the story of the De La Salle Spartan football team’s winning streak through the lives of the players, the community and coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel).
It admirably conveys honest messages about discipline, dedication and brotherhood, but suffers from lack of focus. It muddles through many of the characters’ emotional turns, blunders through tonal shifts from drama to comedy, and lacks nuance.
Despite these missteps, it is commendable that this film chooses to tackle faith with a clear voice. It has less to do with the game of football and more to do with the ethics coach Ladouceur hopes to instill in his players. Religious viewers will appreciate a film that does not shy away from portraying youth that value chastity, volunteer work, prayer and leadership.
We are introduced to the renowned football team in the last game of its 2003-2004 season. The players’ sights are set on glory hoping to capture a 151st consecutive victory. Yet coach Ladouceur’s pep talk echoes: “This program was founded on certain ideals. They have been drowned by the noise and distraction of fame. We got caught up in the hype.”
Veteran players Cam Colvin (Ser’Darius Blain) and T.K. Kelly (Stephan James) are model student athletes. They hope to further their educational goals en route to bright college careers and pass on the torch to incoming seniors Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), Danny Ladouceur (Matthew Daddario) and Tayshon Lanear (Jessie Usher). Chris, Danny and Tayshon don’t get along as well as the graduating seniors, foreshadowing the difficulties they will face going into the 2004-2005 season.
The rest of the first hour takes place off the gridiron. Coach Ladouceur and his assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis) navigate the irksome politics of being undefeated, demonstrating the price of fame. Tragedy crashes in as we delve deeper into the lives of Cam and T.K, seeing how this affects Ladouceur as a coach, teacher and father figure. To make matters worse, Ladouceur suffers a heart attack, revealing the conflict he has at home with his wife Bev (Laura Dern) and his son/player Danny.
But the subtleties of these broken relationships and major plot points are lost because we have not had enough time to make a personal connection. Lack of context dampens the dramatic weight of these scenes.
The film finds its legs in the second hour, assisted by actual game action. It plays out as an underdog sports drama. After devastating early season losses, the fragmented team must find common ground. We see the transformation of these young men as their focus shifts from fame-hungry to working as a team.
This is director Thomas Carter’s second foray into the sports drama genre, having previously directed “Coach Carter” with Samuel L. Jackson. While Carter crafted a visually engaging aesthetic, directorially he falls short in crucial scenes. Suffering the most are the scenes between Caviezel and Dern, fine actors who come off tepid. Performances throughout the film could have been cultivated with more subtlety, with not a one standing out, though all did an adequate job.
Yet film can change how we engage our youth in conversations about fame. YouTube, Instagram, Vine and Twitter make it possible for anyone to have their 15 minutes. As this film highlights losing the hubristic sense of self, it hopes to inspire humility, faith and, above all, serving one another.
This film contains the insinuation of extreme violence, sports violence with the occasional glorification of aggressive play, and mild language. (A-II, PG)
Gabriela Uribe writes from Los Angeles.