“When the Game Stands Tall” recounts the true story of northern California’s De La Salle Spartans, a high school football team that set a national record by recording 151 straight wins in the late ’90s and early aughts. Patriots fans know well that pursuing perfection can come with thrilling highs, but also insane pressures and, inevitably, a taste of crushing disappointment. The filmmakers get this too — they’re mainly concerned with examining the rough circumstances and follow-up chapters that accompany the end of “The Streak.” It’s an interesting approach, but it makes for a structurally glitchy inspirational exercise whose climax carries all the goosebump-making drama of a Pats preseason game.
Jim Caviezel plays Bob Ladouceur, De La Salle’s revered coach, who regularly preaches to his team that playing isn’t about media-hyped streaks, it’s about growing up and effort and family. Some of the preaching is literal — “Game” was produced by Sony Pictures’ religious-demographic division. Still, it’s an infinitely mellower expression of faith than Caviezel gave us in his “Passion of the Christ” days. (If anything, you’ll wish he showed a little fire. His portrayal seems consistent with end-credits clips of the real Ladouceur, but do we really need a football-movie coach this relentlessly somber when we’re already living in Belichick Nation?)
Heading into the 2004 season, things look as rosy as ever for the Spartans — until they don’t. Among the serviceably dramatic developments: Caviezel, who keeps his stress to himself, suffers a health scare following a visit with an emotionally hurting senior. Another graduating senior has a tragic run-in with a gang. Ladouceur’s son (Matthew Daddario) resents that Dad is sidelined for what was supposed to be their big bonding year. The coach confesses to his wife (Laura Dern) that he feels like a streak-fixated, family-neglecting phony. Ladouceur is cleared to return to work — and the team loses.
It’s a template that served “Rocky III” pretty well: lots of swirling distraction for the hero (and the audience) to start, all of which then gets pulled together with rousingly renewed, “Eye of the Tiger” focus. But director Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter”) never really tightens up his story. A redemptive, dynamically shot contest between De La Salle and the only higher-ranked team in the country feels like finale material, but comes at an odd juncture. A clichéd but decently played conflict between the star running back (Alexander Ludwig) and his abusive father (Clancy Brown) takes center stage late, and is ineffectually resolved. It’s as if the filmmakers somehow think they’ve got the relaxed narrative confines of “Friday Night Lights” the TV series to play with, rather than “Friday Night Lights” the movie. The game plan is flawed.
“When the Game Stands Tall” trailer: