WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL
Inspirational sports dramas, particularly inspirational high-school-sports dramas, can boast many virtues, and even the crummier ones can be a lot of fun. But one thing they're not generally known for is surprise, which is why it's all the more flabbergasting that When the Game Stands Tall has such a doozy of one at its center: the leading performance, and maybe the finest one yet, by Jim Caviezel. Director Thomas Carter's football saga is actually pretty terrific for a number of reasons. Yet despite working within a formula, and with the type of role, in which beats and arcs so often feel preordained, Caviezel provides one happy surprise after another, principally - and misleadingly - by appearing to do next to nothing at all.
Based on true events, as such movies routinely are, When the Game Stands Tall concerns Concord, California's legendary De La Salle Spartans, whose head coach Bob Ladouceur led them to an extraordinary 151 victories in a row between 1992 and 2003. Being an inspirational sports drama - which necessitates that our heroes be underdogs - Carter's outing actually follows the players after their crushing, streak-ending loss, at which point the formerly cocky kids and their coach have to deal with failure, and re-build themselves as a team, et cetera et cetera and so forth. The movie's trajectory isn't notably different from that of its sports-flick brethren, and a few of its failings - such as its overly insistent and manipulative score - are wholly typical failings. Yet there's little that's typical about the film's unexpected depth of feeling, with Alexander Ludwig, Ser'Darius Blain, Joe Massingill, and others portraying their football-star archetypes with such sincerity and fervor that their effects catch you wholly off-guard. (I've seen similar scenes many times before, but have never seen a post-loss locker-room sequence quite like the one here, with players quietly sobbing so hard that their legs involuntarily shake.) And there's absolutely nothing typical about what Caviezel brings to the table.
Initially, you may wonder if Caviezel is even bothering to give a performance. In his introductory coaching scene, even at moments of high-pitched intensity, the actor's soft-spoken Ladouceur faces the game and his players with such implacable, Zen-like (or Christ-like) calm that he barely seems present. (You can imagine Remember the Titans' Denzel Washington or We Are Marshall's Matthew McConaughey eating this guy for breakfast.) Yet it doesn't take long to realize that Caviezel is actually fashioning a character who, unlike his screen-coach forebears, is internalizing his passion for football; instead of shouting at the referees and kids, Ladouceur is screaming on the inside - a point made clear when the coach has an early, scary heart attack. From that moment, you become aware of the exquisite subtlety in Caviezel's morally upstanding, inwardly conflicted man - he's not raising his voice because doing so might kill him - and begin to respond to Ladouceur with a concentrated empathy that's quite rare for this genre. Caviezel is lovely with fringe moments, such as when a Spartan tells his teammates, "I will die on that field before I let you down," and the coach gently corrects his word choice by saying, "Collapse." (In a rather radical sentiment for a film of this type, he adds with a smile, "It's just a high-school football game.") But he's even better in Ladouceur's big moments of family discord and inspirational speechifying, because the actor dares to underplay these bits, too; with minimal fuss yet marvelous focus, Caviezel releases his character's roiling emotions through the slightest changes in timbre and bearing.
All told, Caviezel does spectacular work in the sort of role that would seem to have no surprises left in it, and in a few scenes he's matched by Laura Dern, who makes that tiresome cliché of Supportive Coach's Wife feel newly energized and moving. (Following her casting as Shailene Woodley's mom in The Fault in Our Stars, I must say I'm digging Dern's mid-career turn toward playing cool, funny mothers that no teen could conceivably be embarrassed by.) But even though Carter's film engages in too much maudlin if well-meaning sentiment - the Spartans' trip to a VA hospital pushes the pathos a bit too aggressively - it also delivers a great many unanticipated pleasures. There's legitimate vehemence in the scene that finds rival coaches accusing Ladouceur of unfairly cherry-picking students, and the movie is quite effective in demonstrating teen resentment and self-centeredness; Scott Marshall's script, based on a Neil Hayes book, doesn't shy away from making its young heroes occasional, if relatable, jerks. (Ladouceur's son, who's on the team, chides his dad for not being there to coach him while the heart-attack victim is still lying in his hospital bed.) Yet you'll also get just what you theoretically came for in this triumph-of-the-"underdogs" tale. The beautifully edited and photographed games are truly rousing, and the moral and spiritual uplift feels genuine; even the movie's frequent references to God and biblical passages are handled with utmost delicacy. (It's a pro-faith movie that can be rightfully labeled "casually Christian.") When the Game Stands Tall may be corn, but it's exceptionally well-processed corn, and far tastier than that description suggests.
IF I STAY
Director R.J. Cutler's romantic melodrama If I Stay features a cello-playing teen named Mia who narrates the movie - who never stops narrating the movie, actually - and who, early on, refers to Beethoven as "my man Ludwig." Consequently, this character could have come off as both irritating and pretentious, but as she's played by Chloë Grace Moretz, we really had no reason to fear. Unless you're hopelessly mad for the YA novel (by Gayle Forman) that the film is based on, screenwriter Shauna Cross' adaptation might prove itself a real endurance test; with its stock, sitcom-cute characters and relentlessly fraudulent banter, this tale of a girl caught between life and death following a horrific car accident practically corners the market on downbeat whimsy. (None of the tragedies resonates beyond a few seconds of screen time, and the boyfriend of our classically trained heroine is a "grunge rocker" who's more accurately a clean-shaven purveyor of '90s power pop.) Amidst it all, however, Moretz comes through with a fierce and focused professionalism that puts nearly everything around her to shame. I didn't really buy a moment involving Jamie Blackley (whose natural British accent keeps slipping through his American one) as that adorable Iggy Pop wannabe, or Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard (endearing though they are) as Mia's hippie parents, or anything involving If I Stay's out-of-body-experience angle. (Mia's barefooted spirit, who emerges as perhaps less quick-witted than she's meant to, keeps asking people why they can't see or hear her, even as she's staring at her own body on a hospital gurney.) Yet Moretz remains a naturalistic wonder. Exuding electric screen presence and equally comfortable in comedic and dramatic modes - and miming playing the cello sensationally - the 17-year-old performer keeps us invested in Mia's plight even in the film's most awkward passages, and she comes through with delightfully flaky bits of business; I especially loved her Elvis-like lip curl before Moretz described how badly she wanted to lick Blackley's face. Given its sappiness and phoniness, I left If I Stay underwhelmed. But I also left thinking that perhaps no actress prior to Moretz had ever been blessed with such an appropriate middle name.