“When the Game Stands Tall” is a solid if unsurprising and uninspiring melodrama built around high school football, faith-based but “Friday Night Lite.”
It’s the latest of that peculiar subgenre of sports films, where filmmakers bend over backward to make a perennial powerhouse football factory look like an underdog. These stories, about Permian High in Texas (“Friday Night Lights”) or T.C. Williams in Virginia (“Remember the Titans”), look at status as a burden and claim to be about “more than a game,” even as they build toward their by-the-book “Big Game” finale.
“When the Game Stands Tall” varies the formula by being faith-based, about a pious coach (Jim Caviezel) who talks about building character as much as blocking schemes.
Coach Bob Ladouceur lectures his De La Salle Spartans about “love,” setting high standards, making “a perfect effort, from the snap to the whistle” on each play. They share “commitment cards,” pledging to do the extra strength training and extra practice to achieve the high goals they set as a team.
They stand up at the end of team meetings and talk about their feelings. They hold each other accountable, and hold hands, symbolically, as they enter the field. Something worked, because this Concord, California, school won 151 games in a row at one point.
“When the Game Stands Tall” is about the tests they face when that streak is broken.
The melodramatic stuff in this “true story” involves players dedicating games to this dying granddad or that sickly mother, the seniors who have to decide whether to stick together and attend the same college, or find their own way. As with most football factories, a rich community’s public school is an irresistible lure to top athletes from poorer communities nearby.
Coach, quietly obsessed with “The Streak,” has a heart attack. No matter how many times he says, “it’s just a high school football game,” we don’t believe him.
His butterfingered receiver son (Matthew Daddario) just needs a coach and a dad. Tayshon (Jessie Usher) is the cocky, cynical underclassman reluctant to learn leadership from the seniors.
And then there’s the all-star running back (Alexander Ludwig) whose ex-jock dad (Clancy Brown, very good) has decided his son will set the career touchdown record.
Caviezel has become the Tim Tebow of American screen acting. Cloaked in Christianity, he’s been surrounded by success (“The Passion of the Christ”), but you wonder how much of that is a result of his talent. He rarely has a role that requires him to smile, and his lines all have a stern authority about them. He’s “the hoarse whisperer.” That isn’t necessarily a wrongheaded way to play this coach, just a boring one.
Michael Chiklis makes more of an impression as a more openly passionate assistant coach who is on the same morality page with his religion-teacher head coach.
Director Thomas Carter, who did the Richmond, California, high school hoops drama “Coach Carter,” covers many of the same bases here, but loses the thread and never really gets at the idea, pushed by Ladouceur’s wife, that he’s focused too much on the game and not on his family. Perhaps Carter was reluctant to give Caviezel the responsibility for the whole film.
And for all the naked manipulation of the music and the story that builds toward an only slightly unexpected climax, “When the Game Stands Tall” never delivers that lump in the throat that a “Rudy” or “We Are Marshall” or “Friday Night Lights” managed.
It’s as if everybody involved knows how less fulfilling it is to root for the favorites and not the underdogs. What’s inspiring about rooting for Florida State?