When the Game Stands Tall (2014)

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Friday Night Lights are what some people live for, especially those in small towns in Texas. Whole towns go out to watch their High School team play and the atmosphere is unbelievable. It’s very hard not to get into the games and take joy in watching your team crush the opponents. People of all types band together to cheer their team on and it’s always nice when their team is winning. It’s not as much fun when they lose, but you still come out each week, hoping your team will do something spectacular. In Concord, California, something spectacular definitely happened.

The Coach has taken the field.
The Coach has taken the field.

High School football is a big deal in the South and it’s something that thousands of people flock to. Teams win and lose all the time and you’re lucky if your team can go undefeated. No one would ever imagine that the De La Salle football team would go undefeated from 1992-2004. In that span, they won 151 consecutive games under head coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) and they took the world by storm. After ending the season with their 151st win, the seniors graduated and it was time for the juniors, including Ladocuceur’s son (Matthew Daddario), to step up and rally the team. With that amount of wins under their belt, everyone was caught up in “the streak”, which was ended when De La Salle lost to Bellevue.

The team was crushed and everything they’d worked for was gone in an instant. While the players hung their heads low, Coach Ladouceur attempted to pick them back up because a streak means nothing. He wanted to teach them to play for the people around them and not for anyone else. With star player Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) on track to beat the TD record in California, there was also pressure from parents of the players. Assistant Coach Terry Edison (Michael Chiklis) has to step in when Ladouceur has a heart attack, which only prompts the team to work harder. They may never have the streak back, but they will always have each other.

The coaches watch intensely.
The coaches watch intensely.

When the Game Stands Tall had the potential to be something more than the mostly real films in its genre, but it misses the mark on what to highlight and gets caught up in situations that aren’t all that emotional. For someone who grew up in Houston and in Seattle, I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum when it comes to high school football. Down South, it’s a religion in its own right and entire towns flock to games. Up North, only the really successful teams see decent outcomes. While I’ve witnessed many winning teams, I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch “my” team win 151 straight games. Now, just imagine what it must have been like to be a player on that team, or the coach of the team.

Jim Caviezel is the only real standout actor in this film, as we follow his portrayal of the coach through incredibly difficult times. A man of devout faith on, and off the screen, Caviezel treats each role religiously, dedicating many hours to finding his character and what motivates him. While he may be one for big speeches and wise words of wisdom, he also expresses his true feelings through his facial reactions to the thins happening around him. His heart is in it for the right reasons and he does his best to have his players play for the same reason, which I really admired in his character. He never got caught up in all the talk of “the streak” and he stayed true to his team, but also sacrificed family time in the process. Though she’s not involved too heavily in the film, Laura Dern does excel in the few scenes she’s in, as she serves as a guide for Caviezel’s conscious.

Chris Ryan points to his coach.
Chris Ryan points to his coach.

I’m not entirely cut-out for football, but I’ve played a few years and have followed the sport for most of my life and it’s such an outstanding game. There’s a certain rush that you get when you see your team outperforming the other team and nearly everything is a cause for a celebration. This film really captures the essence of what makes football so inspiring, for the players and the fans watching. We get a great look at the player’s determination during practice and in the locker-room, as well as the effort they put in on the field. The technical aspects of this film are great and the game footage that we see is about as close as it gets to real play. Every hit, run, pass, catch, and touchdown seems like it’s real and I couldn’t help but smile and admire the work I was seeing on-screen.

The De La Salle team did something incredible and unheard of, but they were bound to lose at some-point. That’s how the world works and when they lose, it’s soul-crushing for the younger players who tried to step up. As sad as this is for them, this happens in the beginning of the film. Pair that with the loss of an old player and the heart-attack that their coach barely lives through, and your first act of the film blows through all the character’s tough moments. From that point on, there’s never an emotional struggle that doesn’t feel forced, or just ridiculously over-the-top. They had me in the beginning, but there was never enough to keep me invested in the end. It just felt like more football in the end and the stakes didn’t feel nearly as high.

The team poses after victory.
The team poses after victory.

As is the case with many sports films, the players and team face a lot of adversity. Some films handle the portrayal of this well and some find themselves struggling with that. Clancy Brown plays the fictitious, overbearing father that forces his kid to play well for them, or he’ll beat them. That trope is so obnoxious and this one is no different, except for the fact that it feels so extreme. It comes from a place of zero care for the characters and it gets old, fast. There’s also conflict between the characters and with their attitudes, but one look at people less-fortunate than them is all that it takes to get them in tip-top shape and working like a well-oiled machine. If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s flawed characters that are easily fixed when they see just a shred of how different their lives could be. To me, it all comes off as disingenuous and I don’t buy it.

When the Game Stands Tall does have a remarkable and inspiring story to tell, but it doesn’t always know how to tell it. While Caviezel may prove to be the glue that keeps this film together, it’s very hard to feel too attached to this film, especially after everything bad happens in the beginning. It’s still fun to watch them all practice and play football, but I’m certain that this film’s religious themes may dissuade some people. It never felt heavy-handed, given that De La Salle is a Roman Catholic school, but I’m sure people will find reasons to be upset with team prayers and scripture comparisons. If you’re a fan of football, a player, a coach, or have any interest in football, you may want to give this film a look.

When the Game Stands Tall Trailer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlmONjPytxI

3 STARS!!!

 

3 / 5 stars     

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