Sports movies have the luxury of a built-in climax. The plot usually centers on a big game against a formidable opponent. Against all odds, the heroes manage to pull off the win, discovering something deep and meaningful about themselves in the process. Credit director Thomas Carter with trying to do something different with When the Game Stands Tall, which opens areawide on Friday.
The film doesn't dwell on one big game (though there is some of that) but instead focuses on unconventional De La Salle High School coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel, channeling Clint Eastwood), a devout Christian who is more concerned with making boys into men than winning football games.
Based on the Neil Hayes book by the same name, the movie starts as the De La Salle football team (the team is based in Concord, Calif.) sees its 151-game winning streak come to an end. Upset that his players seem to lack the fight and determination needed to even put together a winning season, Coach Ladouceur takes the team to the veterans hospital to toughen them up. They see guys who have lost their limbs and are working hard in rehab. The experience makes the team members realize they should be grateful for what they have.
The technique works and the team starts winning again and playing better, something it needs to do in advance of a showdown with a team from Long Beach that's ranked tops in the country. Though the big game against Long Beach does count as the film's climax, the movie centers as much on the drama that takes place off the field.
Coach Ladouceur struggles to connect with his son Danny (Matthew Daddario) and wife Bev (Laura Dern). Star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) has issues with his asshole dad. And the team's African-American players have to deal with the trials and tribulations of living in the poorer parts of the city. The film ultimately offers a few too many platitudes about life and how to live it (and its Christian bent borders on propaganda), but it makes a worthy attempt at putting a new spin on the conventional football film.