Sports films are a bit like horror films or romantic comedies; there are few that actually stand tall above the rest. Yet every so often, one like “When the Game Stands Tall” reminds us there are still untapped resources in the genre.
While there are certainly games played within the film, this story is about a coach who made his purpose not about victories or the team’s unbelievable winning streak, but his dedication to making his players better human beings.
“Life’s greatest lessons happen with something bad happens or challenges you,” Bob Ladouceur explains to his team.
The film, directed by the same man who directed “Coach Carter,” Thomas Carter, builds to an emotional conclusion that earns the right to bring tears from the audience.
Coach and teacher Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) helped the high school team at De La Salle in Richmond, Calif., maintain a 151-game winning streak in the early 2000s. His program focused not only on strength, smart plays and determination, but personal development and the love for teammates.
As high school football players, these guys didn’t charge the field and break through a banner; instead, the young men held hands and slowly walked onto each game.
“I love this part, really freaks the other team out,” one parent says about the tradition. Yet, even the Spartans strength and focus can be broken. Their winning streak ends with the 2005 season and they must start back at the bottom and rediscover what is truly important.
Featuring scenes with players holding hands and crying, heads bowed in prayer not only just before a game, but “When the Game Stands Tall” isn’t necessarily a religious film but a moral one. Throughout the film, Ladouceur cringes when the entire world is focused on their record-breaking winning streak; he doesn’t want his or the team’s legacy to be about a number, but rather the character-driven brotherhood that earned it.
The film also calls into question Ladouceur’s ability as a father and a husband. Caviezel is a good fit for this stone-faced character who never loses his cool and rarely questions his abilities and purpose. The lack of emotion doesn’t make him the most interesting man to watch.
The film doesn’t pick up its stride until the various subplots of former players are forgotten and the team loses its winning streak. After that, we get to see how they got there in the first place. The moments where the players are forced to share their feelings in a group are very similar to testimony in church.
“Don’t let the game define you,” Ladouceur reminds them after both victory and defeat.
So rarely do we see Hollywood films exalt teenagers, and this is a great reminder that there are outstanding citizens of every age.
“Hunger Games” and “Vikings” star Alexander Ludwig is also very admirably cast in the film, and every scene with Laura Dern is one of the film’s high points.
Final thought: Even non-sports fans will find strength and encouragement from this true story.
‘When the Game Stands Tall’
STARRING: Jim Caviezel, Alexander Ludwig, Laura Dern, Michael Chiklis