The key play in “When the Game Stands Tall” isn’t a last-second dive over the goal line, a long pass or even a game-winning field goal. It’s taking a knee.
That alone should tell you that this based-on-a-true-story football picture isn’t your garden variety cliched sports movie. Instead, it looks at what happens when the winning stops -- and, mostly, at the coach who led his California high school team to 115 straight wins.
That coach is Bob Ladouceur, who stepped down as head coach of Concord, California, De La Salle High School two years ago after 34 seasons with a record of 399-25-3 and seven high school national championships.
Humble and low key, Ladouceur succeeded without screaming at players or delivering fiery pregame speeches or planning practices and games to the last second. Instead, he taught boys to become men, emphasizing commitment to others and the team, hard work and, appropriately for a Catholic school, faith.
“Where the Game Stands Tall,” which is based on sportswriter Neil Hayes' book about De La Salle’s 12-year winning streak, begins in 2004, when the Spartans were at their peak, riding the streak to championships, real and mythical.
Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) wasn’t wild about the streak, brushing off questions about it and trying to keep his players from emphasizing the wins. Naturally enough, the streak went to the younger Spartans' heads -- setting up the distinct possibility of a loss the next season.
Then Ladouceur and his team get hit twice. The coach suffers a heart attack, and doctors ban him from practice. Worse, star running back T.K. Kelly (Stephan James), who was headed to Oregon, was killed in a drive-by shooting.
I’m not going to spell out what happened in the 2005 season. But there are plenty of subplots to explore that don’t impact the narrative drive.
Running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) is being pushed by his overbearing, obnoxious father (Clancy Brown) to break a record simply for the glory while Tayshon Lanear (Jessie Usher), a JV star, arrogantly assumes that he will be a star and lead the team to easy wins.
Ladouceur struggles to connect with his family -- wife Bev (Laura Dern) and son Danny (Matthew Daddario), a wide receiver on the football team who says that when he needed a dad he got a coach, and when he needed a coach, Ladouceur tried to be a dad.
Ladouceur together with his top assistant/best friend Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis) have to deal with all the above and with getting the team back on track -- and to do so without abandoning his philosophy.
Director Thomas Carter, who made “Coach Carter,” effectively conveys all of that -- and keeps a strong on-field story going as well. Those games look right -- thanks, in part, to experienced technical advisers. And, importantly, the acting is convincing all around.
The real fields where De La Salle played its games aren’t in the movie. “When the Game Stands Tall” was filmed in Louisiana. But a football stadium is a football stadium, a locker room is a locker room and a house is a house.
As always with high school movies, actors in their 20s are playing kids in their teens. So, the players look more like collegians than high schoolers. Again, that’s easy enough to overlook.
Over the last decade, I’ve been able to watch two exemplary coaches work up close, Mark Wortman of Elkhorn High School and St. John’s University’s John Gagliardi, who retired two years ago as the winningest coach in college football history. I thought and saw elements of both in the screen version of Ladouceur.
That’s probably the best thing I can say about “When the Game Stands Tall,” a sports movie that is about what sports is really supposed to be about, and that has way more to do with the taking of the knee than any win.