Alexander Ludwig, left, Jim Caviezel and Danny Ladouceur star in high school football film 'When the Game Stands Tall.' (Sony Pictures Entertainment / Tracy Bennett)
“When the Game Stands Tall” is a solid, if unsurprising and uninspiring, melodrama built around high school football, faith-based, but “Friday Night Lite.”
It’s the latest of that peculiar sub-genre of sports films where filmmakers bend over backwards to make a perennial powerhouse football factory look like an underdog.
“When the Game” varies the formula by being faith-based, about a pious coach (Jim Caviezel) who talks about building character as much as he worries about blocking schemes.
Coach Bob Ladouceur lectures his De La Salle Spartans about “love,” setting high standards, making “a perfect effort, from the snap to the whistle” on each play. They share “commitment cards,” pledging the extra strength training, the extra practice and high goals they want to achieve as a team.
They stand up at the end of team meetings and talk about their feelings. They hold each other accountable, and hold hands, symbolically, as they enter the field. Something worked, because this Concord, Calif., school won 151 games in a row at one point.
“When the Game Stands Tall” is about the tests they face when that streak is broken.
The melodramatic stuff in this “true story” involves players dedicating games to this dying granddad or that sickly mother, the seniors who have to decide whether to stick together and attend the same college, or find their own way out of Richmond, Calif.
Director Thomas Carter, who did the high school hoops drama “Coach Carter,” covers many of the same bases here, but loses the thread and never really gets at the idea, pushed by Ladouceur’s wife, that he’s focused too much on the game and not on his family.
And for all the naked manipulation of the music and the story that builds toward an only slightly unexpected climax, “When the Game Stands Tall” never delivers that lump in the throat that a “Rudy” or “Friday Night Lights” managed.
It’s as if everybody involved knows how less fulfilling it is to root for the favorites and not the underdogs.