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When the Game Stands Tall

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 22, 2014 at 2:38 a.m.


Ser'Darius Blain in TriStar Pictures' WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL.

When the Game Stands Tall

78 Cast: Jim Caviezel, Laura Dern, Michael Chiklis, Clancy Brown

Director: Thomas Carter

Rating: PG, for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking

Running time: 115 minutes

There was a very nice moment Monday night when the team that represented Rhode Island -- and all of the Northeast -- lost in the Little League World Series to a team from Chicago. It was an elimination game, so understandably some of the young players on the losing side were dejected and in tears.

Then their coach, Dave Belisle, gathered them together and said this: "Heads up high. Heads up high. I've gotta see your eyes, guys. There's no disappointment in your effort -- in the whole tournament, the whole season. It's been an incredible journey ....

"You're going to take that for the rest of your lives ... The lessons you guys have learned along the journey, you're never going to forget. We're going to have some more fun ... When you walk around this ballpark in the next couple of days, they're going to look at you and say: 'Hey, you guys were awesome!' Everybody has said: You guys are awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Absolutely awesome.

"It's OK to cry, because we're not going to play baseball together anymore. But we're going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be ... So, we need to go see our parents, because they're so proud of you. One more thing. I want a big hug. I want everyone to come in here for one big hug. One big hug, then we're going to go celebrate ... I love you guys. I'm gonna love you forever. You've given me the most precious moment in my athletic and coaching career, and I've been coaching a long time -- a looooong time. I'm getting to be an old man. I need memories like this, I need kids like this. You're all my boys. You're the boys of summer."

Maybe it's unfair to compare that heartfelt little impromptu speech with the calculated, humorless sermon that is When the Game Stands Tall. Because the people we see onscreen in the movie are so obviously play-acting for money. (And that play-acting isn't even at a consistently high level.) Because, even though the movie is "inspired by a true story," it's not really a true story. (Not that it matters, but you'll probably be able to guess which characters and incidents were invented.)

Still, it seems to echo Belisle's message that winning isn't the only thing. There are things more important than football. That's a good message that deserves a better movie.

When the Game Stands Tall is about a legendary high school football coach, Bob Ladouceur (played here by the perpetually dour Jim Caviezel), who coached the Spartans of De La Salle High School, a Catholic school in Concord, Calif., from 1979 until 2012. From 1992 to 2004, his teams racked up 12 consecutive undefeated seasons and set a national record for high school football of 151 consecutive wins. (The average margin of victory during the streak was more than 38 points.)

But the movie really isn't about that streak. It's about the end of the streak, and the aftermath -- the life lessons that were learned when adversity finally dressed out. Three actual incidents play a big part in the first half of the film: On New Year's Eve 2003, Ladouceur had a heart attack. In August 2004, the Spartans' star linebacker Terrance Kelly (Stephan James) was shot to death two days before he was to leave for the University of Oregon on a football scholarship. Then, in September, the Spartans lost their season opener to Washington's Bellevue High School.

On the plus side, the football choreography is pretty good. And the kids look almost age-appropriate.

While not overtly Christian, the film has a faith-based message that's not entirely unwelcome; unfortunately it's a purely vanilla film, blandly cast (save for Laura Dern as the coach's wife and Michael Chiklis as an assistant coach) and predictably plotted. Caviezel has never been shy about his Catholicism, and that, along with a superficial resemblance to the real Ladouceur, seems to be the reason he was cast here. He's unconvincing as an inspiring leader, as uncharismatic a football coach as we've ever seen on film.

Good intentions don't make for good cinema, and while When the Game Stands Tall suffices as a homily, it's difficult to make a meal from this pretty thin broth. You might be better served by watching Belisle on YouTube.

MovieStyle on 08/22/2014

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