The sudden surge of Christian-themed film into the mainstream is one of 2014’s more fascinating minor developments. Nowhere near poised to take over, or radically alter the Hollywood sin factory, the current crop of Christian movies is still making more noise in the culture and at the box office than ever before.
To call it an official “new wave” would suggest a more organized movement or, more importantly, a contribution to the progression of cinema, and most of these films are lucky if they achieve competency, much less any quality understood as artful. But bigger budgets are attracting experienced actors, skilled artists behind the camera, and marketing campaigns that reach beyond churches. The result is wide-release, wide-appeal films like Heaven is For Real, and now this Catholic-leaning tale of unexpected tragedies, both big and small, that threaten to sink a high school football dynasty.
Based on the true story of coaching legend Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), who led his team, The Spartans, of the all-male Catholic high school De La Salle in Concord, California, to an unprecedented 151-game winning streak, When The Game Stands Tall is an unusually low-key attempt to fuse the inspirational sports film with sedate lessons about honor, dependability, effort, tenacity and humility.
This turns out to be a tougher challenge than you might expect. The screenplay by Scott Marshall (Men of Honor), based on the Neil Hayes' book, centralizes a worldview that rejects self-aggrandizement. Typical sports film tragedies and near-tragedies that normally propel a movie team to last-act victory are on display, but the script's priorities lie elsewhere. The coach and his boys weather unexpected death, a health scare and a broken winning streak, but the emphasis here is on crises of faith and the moral fumblings of adolescence.
Ladouceur sees himself losing his influence on the inner lives of his young men and they, in turn, respond with flashes of ego, self-absorption and an unwillingness to share their emotions with their teammates. The solution? Teach them about brotherhood and decency, even if it means downplaying their own talent.
If that feels like an unwinnable game for a sports movie, it nearly is. Director Thomas Carter aims squarely for the middle of the road, both formally and emotionally. Caviezel follows, as a quiet coach who seems to be trying to communicate his frustrations telepathically. This anti-emphatic approach wants to reflect a sort of sureness and calm, but instead reads as distant and just this side of chilly.
It's an admirable effort, though, one that struggles to present faith as the opposite of smug, braying and obnoxious. That counts for a lot, especially in a Christian film landscape that tends to lean toward the latter (see: the repellent God's Not Dead). But when it's time for the big game and the audience is ready for the expected payoff that entails, it's that very dignity that robs the film of needed excitement. Oh, you wanted to see the opposing team trounced? You think there's no room for symbolic gestures of mercy in high school football? Too bad. If you're not ready for something different (and just a little dull), this movie would invite you to go check the contents of your soul.