There are approximately three thousand sports-themed movies in which the underdog rises up to beat the big bad bully. But what happens when the bully gets knocked off their perch? Even more so, how does that bully respond after a loss that ends a 151 game win streak?
In a bit of a refreshing look, that is what “When the Game Stands Tall” does. This “based on real events” movie looks at the De La Salle high school’s football team’s response to not only losing a football game, but overcoming a tragedy that transcends sports and absolutely floors an entire community.
It’s not often that a sports movie about a team on a winning streak begins with the last win in that streak. “When the Game Stands Tall” opens with head coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) and his Spartans finishing off a state title and dealing with the pressures of an unfathomable win streak. It soon becomes clear that next year’s team is not going to be near as good as the previous, which even outgoing seniors such as Cam Colvin (Ser’Darius Blain) and T.K. Kelly (Stephan James) can see.
Before the team can even get together for their first spring practice, tragedy strikes in several ways. Ladouceur has health problems, leaving his longtime assistant head coach, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis), leading the team. It also upsets Ladouceur’s son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), who was looking forward to his father coaching him in his senior season.
If that wasn’t enough, there is an act of disgusting, pointless violence that takes someone’s life. As De La Salle is a Catholic school and all of the students and teachers appear to be moderately to heavily religious, this makes several people question their faith in humanity and the world as a whole.
It’s fairly heavy stuff for a sports movie. It also doesn’t come off as preachy or Bible-thumpy. Yes, adults and kids pray and turn to God for guidance. However, the message coming out of “When the Game Stands Tall” is not that faith in religion can cure all ills. This is a movie about growing up the right way and learning how to deal with life, even for the adults who may think they’ve seen it all.
Director Thomas Carter isn’t a stranger to sports movies having directed the not-so-good “Coach Carter”. With “When the Game Stands Tall”, Carter manages to walk that tightrope between sappy and heartfelt realism. The story has such a tragedy befall everyone that the behavior from the characters is forgivable, which does make it easier for Carter to keep the movie from falling into the overly emotional abyss.
Naturally, Jim Caviezel has the most screen time as Coach Ladouceur. Maybe Caviezel is doing a spot on impersonation of this real life football coach and if he is, Ladouceur is the most soft spoken human being to ever walk the Earth. In fact, Caviezel’s face may as well be carved from stone. He smiles every so often, but never sheds a tear, which seems impossible considering the weight that is falling on his shoulders.
Laura Dern shows up every now and then to offer a few wise words as Ladouceur’s wife, but her screen time is sadly minimal. Dern is great in even the worst of movies so a movie can always use as much of her as possible. If anything, it’s shocking to see the normally very risque Dern in such an earnest, Bible-quoting type of movie.
There is a little comic relief and most of it is provided by Michael Chiklis. He is almost unrecognizable, sporting glasses and the classic horseshoe balding pattern atop his normally totally shaved head. He gets most of the football-styled jokes, shouting out from the sideline at players with funny, sarcastic remarks such as “it’s okay to hit these guys, in fact, it’s actually encouraged!”
Alexander Ludwig plays Chris Ryan, the star running back who is set to break the California state record for touchdowns, and this is a bit of a star making turn for him. He has to deal with an overbearing father (Clancy Brown) who is living vicariously through him, which leads to some uncomfortable dramatic moments. Ludwig does a fantastic job of not only looking like a chiseled athlete, but showing that he is the real grown up in his unfortunate family dynamic.
While there is a scene of violence and some mild cursing, “When the Game Stands Tall” is a fantastic family movie. At a time when almost every movie with a PG or PG-13 rating seems to be pushing the envelope, this is a movie that parents can safely take their kids to see. It’s not annoyingly preachy nor does it insist upon itself. This is nothing more than an endearing, big-hearted movie with a story that could inspire people and show that people can band together to overcome the struggles of life.