Movie Review: 'When the Game Stands Tall' is a solid, winning effort

“When the Game Stands Tall” is not exactly the movie version of a kickoff return for a touchdown that makes the crowd go wild with joy and surprise. It’s more like a hard-fought TD or field goal that puts key points on the board but doesn’t necessarily set anyone’s heart thumping. 

'When the Game Stands Tall'

Starring: Jim Caviezel, Laura Dern, Michael Chiklis.

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

If a screenwriter had invented De La Salle High School, audiences might balk. After all, who would readily believe a football team with a 151 consecutive wins? Isn’t that just a little too greedy or exaggerated in terms of storytelling? And that detail about players holding hands as they walk onto the field? 

But it’s true, as documented in the Neil Hayes book of the same name about the Catholic boys school in Concord, Calif., and in images shown at movie’s end (so stay seated). However, “When the Game” is about more than the fabled streak, which would have worn out its welcome on the screen anyway. They won and then won again and won and won and won. 

No, “When the Game” is about what happens after the Spartans’ streak ends and the team and community grapple with tragedies or challenges big and small. It’s also about a coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel, “The Passion of the Christ,” TV’s “Person of Interest”), who quietly bristled at the team, media and community obsession with the streak and was more concerned that his players demonstrate the “perfect effort.”

To him, it’s not about football or scoring touchdowns. He says, “It’s about moving you in a direction that can assist you and help you to grow up … so that when you take your place out in the world and out in our community you can be depended on.” 

To the dismay of his wife (Laura Dern), the man known as Coach Lad regularly rejected lucrative offers to oversee college ball. “I wouldn’t be helping anyone,” he says.

But when he suffers a heart attack, a graduate is killed and the team loses, the Spartans football team is thrown into dissent, doubt and tears. Sounding like the religious studies teacher he is, the coach tells them: “Don’t let a game define who you are. Let your life do that.” 

“When the Game Stands Tall,” directed by Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter” and the filmed-in-Pittsburgh TV pilot of “Equal Justice”) and written by Scott Marshall Smith, is solid and inspiring but not as rousing as “Friday Night Lights” or “Remember the Titans.” That is partly due to the taciturn, sincere style of Coach Lad, who comports himself like a priest and is played with nearly saintly dignity by Mr. Caviezel, and the absence of the usual clique of flamboyant or cocky players.

Michael Chiklis injects some energy as fellow real-life coach Terry Eidson, as do a running back (Alexander Ludwig, “The Hunger Games”) and his overbearing father (Clancy Brown). They’re inventions designed to symbolize the chance for individual glory and the parents who demand not just playing time but victory. 

For those not familiar with California high school football, it’s never made clear why the team would play an opponent from the state of Washington, and accusations about scholarships and cherry-picking are leveled by other coaches but brushed off rather hastily.

Humility, brotherhood and love can be difficult to dramatize, but “When the Game Stands Tall” does its modest best. And as Friday night lights resume, its timing couldn’t be better.




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