In a sense, "When the Game Stands Tall" the Hollywood-ization of De La Salle High School's legendary Spartans football team -- is about what it's not about. It's not about winning. It's not even about the football. Rather, it's a values-driven parable of character.
Since Concord's De La Salle is a Catholic school, it lends itself well to a "faith-based" film, though screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith and director Thomas Carter have the good sense to tread relatively lightly around the Jesus stuff. Noted Jesus portrayer (and fan) Jim Caviezel plays storied coach Bob Ladouceur, who oversaw the Spartans' unprecedented 151-game winning streak. Unchallenged dominance doesn't serve the drama of a sports movie, so of course the real story is in the dynasty beginning to crumble.
Health issues sideline Ladouceur, just as son Danny (Matthew Daddario), a Spartan receiver, finally hoped to make something of his situation with a football-obsessed dad. A tragedy of gun violence fells a Spartan. And, yes, the streak ends, as the new batch of seniors takes its success for granted, and De La Salle steps up to face a well-matched rival in Long Beach Poly. Can Ladouceur put the pieces back together? And should he, given the toll on his family (including his wife, played by Laura Dern) and enticing job offers at the collegiate level?
When the script focuses on process and philosophy, the film functions best. "When the Game Stands Tall" takes interest in how Ladouceur formed boys into men by empowering them to take ownership of their growth and success and care about excellence more than wins. The players author "commitment cards" spelling out their achievable personal goals for improvement, practice and work out on a grueling schedule, get perspective by visiting wounded veterans, and formally gather to pour out their emotions to each other and thereby bond as a team.
But this wouldn't be a sports movie without hyped-up drama, and "When the Game Stands Tall" has its fair share of soap-operatic emotional displays, climactically capped by a schmaltzy, manufactured, arguably absurd "Rudy"-style moment. Carter previously helmed the high-school basketball film "Coach Carter," also of local interest, about putting academics first. There's little here about the student side of student athletes, but we do get a fictional running back (Alexander Ludwig) with an off-the-shelf jerky dad (Clancy Brown) that compares poorly to surrogate dad Ladouceur.
Ludwig's character insists, when seriously injured, "The only way I'm going out of this game is on a stretcher." There's implicit heroism in his attitude, disconcertingly so as the game soul-searches about its physical toll on players, perhaps especially school-age ones. Of course, we've seen the "Full eyes, clear hearts, can't lose" ethic before on screen, and more winningly dramatized, but "When the Game Stands Tall" does a good, and family-friendly, job of encapsulating Ladouceur's "winning" approach to life as well as the game: putting in a no-regrets "perfect effort from snap to whistle."
Rated PG for thematic material, a scene of violence and brief smoking. One hour, 55 minutes.