Hugging the Middle-of-the-Road

Washington City Paper | June 16, 2006
Anyone who thinks that sports documentaries have more realistic story arcs than their fictional counterparts might want to reconsider after watching The Heart of the Game. This basketball doc begins as an unconventional coach signs on to lead a ragtag bunch of players. It ends with the big game. In the middle of the cliché sandwich, though, is a surprisingly engaging movie about the impact of high-school sports on a group of exceptional young women. Director Ward Serrill starts filming when Bill Resler, a genial tax professor, becomes head coach of the girls’ team at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School. Resler ditches the squad’s set plays in favor of a full-court press, encouraging his eager charges to swarm the opposition like a pack of wolves—his pre-game chant is “Draw blood! Draw blood! Have fun!” The coach is kooky and charismatic, but he’s less compelling than his winning, articulate players. It’s not extraordinary to see a sports movie about a plucky team, of course, but it is rare to see one in which you get a sense of why the players love sports in the first place. Serrill skillfully intercuts six years’ worth of game footage with off-court interviews (and voice-over narration from Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) to reveal kids so dedicated to athleticism that, when Resler demands a series of wind sprints, they all thank him for it. The film’s most affecting sequence, though, comes when we see Devon Crosby-Helms, the only player who doesn’t fall under Resler’s sway, chirping away on her cell phone with her private basketball tutor, a man we soon learn has been sexually abusing her. Though the director unflinchingly reveals the various ills of high-school sports, he doesn’t do so with a jaundiced eye. If anything, there’s a bit too much boosterism: Team star Darnellia Russell, despite repeated assertions that she has the talent to make it to the WNBA, faces obstacles that would be insurmountable in any but the most feel-good piece of cineplexia. That doesn’t make her or her teammates any less likable—it just means that The Heart of the Game doesn’t have the scope of, say, Hoop Dreams. But that’s a relatively new standard for sports movies. By the old ones, Serrill’s film couldn’t be better: It gives us a team that’s impossible not to root for.

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