Says the narrator at the start of “Under the Stadium Lights,” “We here in Abilene believe in faith, family, and football — the Holy Trinity,” and if you share those beliefs, I guess this is the movie for you. But would it have killed someone to have thrown in a few rudimentary filmmaking skills as well? A stultifying drama based on the 2009 season of the Abilene High Eagles, “Lights” suffers from sermonizing dialogue, amateurish performances, and an ugly racial blind spot disguised as white savior paternalism.
It’s earnest, though — give it that. At the start of Todd Randall’s film, the Texas high school team is coming back from a season-ending loss that has taken the wind out of its sails. The rising seniors on the squad face bigger problems. Star quarterback Ronnell Sims (Carter Redwood) has a crack addict father (Eddie George), while his cousin, running back Herschel Sims (Acoryé White), has a jailbird mom (Ruthie Austin). Linebacker “Boo” Barrientes (Germain Arroyo) has a brother (Nicholas Delgado) who’s running with a murderous street gang and pressuring Boo to join in.
Counseling the players is team chaplain Chad Mitchell (Milo Gibson), whose worst problem is a wife (Abigail Hawk) who wants him to spend more time with their young daughter (Iris Seifert). “Under the Stadium Lights” toggles awkwardly among all these storylines and long sequences of archival game footage from 2009 with new play-by-play voiceovers. Redwood and White give raw but effective performances while Arroyo is cringingly overwrought and Gibson shows little to nothing of father Mel’s screen charisma.
The film’s message is worthy: Strive to be your brother’s keeper. Its governing assumptions are something else entirely. There are white players on the team but they’re never identified and presumably don’t have any problems at home; by contrast, there are no players of color who don’t come from broken, dysfunctional families. This prescriptive Black miserabilism is addressed with homilies and exhortations to “have heart” by a raft of white authority figures, from the down-with-the-kids chaplain to the coaching squad led by gruff head coach Warren (Glenn Morshower). An exception is the owner of the local rib joint, played by Laurence Fishburne with welcome professionalism and mostly from a hospital bed.
“Under the Stadium Lights” makes no effort to comprehend larger societal and systemic forces; it preaches grit, gumption, and a docile, unquestioning compassion. The church-production vibe extends to dialogue that sounds like a pastor’s approximation of Black teen slang and to Boo’s Latina mother, who’s played by an actress named Bridget Fitzgerald speaking in stilted high school Spanish. The movie’s available on demand, but so are all five seasons of “Friday Night Lights,” a series that explores many of the same issues with all the skill and nuance “Under the Stadium Lights” lacks.
UNDER THE STADIUM LIGHTS
Directed by Todd Randall. Written by John Collins and Hamid Torabpour. Starring Milo Gibson, Carter Redwood, Acoryé White, Germain Arroyo, Laurence Fishburne. Available on demand. 108 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, violence and bloody images, drug material, and language)