Sports films are generally disgusting celebrations of insufferable clichés. But this one took me completely by surprise: I found myself actually caring about a bunch of kids playing basketball.
It's no wonder most sports films follow an easy formula — the creation of conflict and its cathartic resolution is the most surefire way to engage an audience, be it sports rivalry, political confrontation, courtroom theatrics or artistic competition. How many films can you think of where the final outcome hinges on a race or a jury decision or the big game? All of them, right? It's such a staple of what we consider entertainment that we don't even consciously notice how blatantly we are being manipulated.
The Heart of the Game — a documentary about the Roosevelt Roughriders, a girls' high school basketball team in Seattle — doesn't avoid any of this. And yet by the time we get to that inevitable battle for the state championship, the seemingly impossible has happened: We're more engaged in the game itself and the players in it than the outcome of the contest.
What really makes this team interesting is their coach, who turns out to be a rare, unique character within the clichéd strive-for-glory setup. Forget about Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears or Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own — Bill Resler is as likeable and quirky a guy as ever blew a whistle.
Resler, the school physics teacher and father of three girls, explains that he had no training in coaching.
He was simply a guy who appreciated the value of sports and wanted to bring that understanding to the girls he taught.
Perhaps because of his lack of experience, his methods are unusual, to say the least. Knowing his players suffer a height disadvantage, Resler makes the decision to abandon all offense and turn his charges into a pack of strong, vicious wolves that could outlast all opponents. He constantly reminds the girls to be fierce, stare down their opponents and have the mindset that they are tearing their victims apart and eating their carcasses. He goes so far as to put up posters of wolves around their gymnasium. During games, when most coaches would be shouting at their team to play defense, Resler shouts: "Draw blood!" His aggressive methods work and the Roosevelt Roughriders begin winning — so, rather than being tarred and feathered by freaked-out parents, he becomes the toast of the school.
First-time director/writer Ward Serrill must have seen something pretty special in Resler to devote an entire documentary — and over five years of his life — to the guy's story. Serrill follows him everywhere, filming the team's games and grueling practices and interviewing the players (one girl's candid comment about Resler: "I never thought someone could motivate me by being an animal").
As it turns out, Serrill uncovers more than enough real-life drama. One of the team's stars quickly becomes overconfident, and starts to argue with the coach and question his methods. Eventually, it emerges that the girl was being molested by a different coach in an advanced program she was enrolled in at the time.
Later in the film, Darnellia Russell — a superbly gifted athlete from a poor family and one of the only black girls on the team — comes in as a freshman. Her best friend plays for Garfield, the team's archrival across town, a frighteningly serious outfit coached by former Harlem Globetrotter Joyce Walker. The focus of the film eventually shifts to Russell when her pregnancy forces her to leave the team and her fight to get back on it.
Throughout, Serrill's devotion to his subjects keeps us interested in their conflicts, triumphs and personal lives. For the narrator, he has wisely employed rapper/actor Ludacris, whose calm, measured tones keep the story moving steadily along. Serrill also weaves in interesting tidbits of historical background. When the dispirited team needs extra motivation, Resler brings in a woman who had been a pioneering basketball coach back in the '30s to give the girls a pep talk. The director deftly uses this scene as a springboard for talking about the evolution of women in sports, drawing from old films and photographs to show how girls were once kept from using the whole court for fear that they would overexert themselves and faint. This vintage footage contrasts nicely with shots of the bootcamp-like sprints and other muscle- and endurance-building drills Resler puts his willing players through.
I actually found these kids and their coach as engaging as I did the twisted, unique wheelchair brutes of Murderball, something I never expected. This proves that for a good documentary to work, the subject itself is less important than the filmmaker's insight and devotion to that subject. That's why, in both cases, I didn't care who won the big game — it was the story and the characters that kept me in my seat. Grade: A-