The Heart of the Game
Who needs faux melodramatic school sports stories when a real-life documentary like Heart of the Game shows it in living, breathing heart-wrenching color?
Eccentric Bill Resler looks more like a skinny Santa Claus than someone who could tackle a group of high school girls, but he transforms easily into a hard-hitting no-nonsense basketball coach. He leaves his job as a college professor and takes on the challenge of taking over the team, as the cameras follows him over a six-year period. The Roughriders basketball team at Roosevelt High School, which is situated in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood of Seattle, has some rough spots. But Resler quickly whips them into shape using some unorthodox methods and dealing with the typical politics of school administrations as well as racial and sexual issues along the way. One day, a feisty and strong-willed African American girl, Darnellia Russell, decides to transfer from her mostly-black school Garfield High to Roosevelt so she can work with Resler--and ends up inspiring the team.
Heart of the Game follows the girls and the coach with a fly-on-the-wall point of view, and they all seem rather natural when in front of the camera. The players, the mothers, the fellow teachers all shed tears of joy and sobs of sadness as the camera captures everything along the way. The heart of the story, however, centers on the two rather ambiguous and innocuous characters--Resler and the tough Darnellia. They become so real audiences may love or hate them at any given moment because of how they show all sides of their personalities and reveal their inner thoughts. Rapper/actor Ludacris narrates the story throughout, giving unobtrusive background when necessary. It's amazing to watch the girls grow up and everyone in the story age over the half-dozen years the story takes place. They mature, they get smarter, they deal with hard issues, and it's not something any acting school can ever equal. It's life.
Anyone who reluctantly was dragged to see Hoop Dreams--and then was floored by its honest realis--will be equally entranced by Heart of the Game, which is less about basketball and more about their personal struggles and lives. Director Ward Serrill has woven an intricate story with his camera and editing that includes a lot of plot twists, and many McGuffins, shedding light on the characters' personalities. Resler even plays and sings some of the songs, strumming his guitar while Serrill accompanies with a harmonica for the film's score. One of the greatest moments in the film is when the coach has the team imagine themselves as bloodthirsty growling wolves and shouts, ''Devour the moose!'' while they're all in the locker room before a game. One year they're lions, another year they're a tropical storm, but he always has a motivating theme. The whirlwind story takes audiences on an emotional rollercoaster of their lives, happy and tragic, and it's easy to forget that with Heart of the Game you're watching real life.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.