Heart of the Game, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In recent years, true sports stories, both documentaries and feature films, have become increasingly popular. The nature of the competition, which has varied from football to spelling bees, is irrelevant. Viewers appreciate movies that tell inspirational tales, and The Heart of the Game is such a production. Chronicling six seasons of high school basketball for the Roosevelt (Washington) Roughriders, Ward Serrill's documentary examines the success of coach Bill Resler from the 1998-99 season (his first) through the 2003-04 season. It also explores the trials and tribulations of his star player, Darnellia Russell, whose contributions to the team led to an amazing run in her final season.

On the surface, there's nothing remarkable about this film. It feels like many similar documentaries. We meet Resler, a college tax professor who takes the coaching job at Roosevelt High because it's a challenge. His methods are unorthodox - build stamina and don't worry about a complicated offense. His first year is successful, but expectations go up with the addition of Russell to the team. However, the final triumph - a state championship - eludes him, and a pregnancy for 18-year old Russell endangers her ability to complete high school.

The Heart of the Game touches many issues and gives viewers glimpses of how different the movie could have been had Serrill chosen to edit it differently or shift the focus. Instead of the inspirational story of Resler and Russell, it could have been an angry tirade against racism and sexism in high school sports; an examination of the injustice of governing bodies as evidenced in their hypocritical attitude toward pregnant female athletes; or a look at the rivalry between Roosevelt and the Garfield Bulldogs, coached by ex-star Joyce Walker. Serrill shows an ability to adapt to changing circumstances. When he began filming, the movie was intended to follow the team for one year and focus on the coach. The introduction of Russell into the mix allowed Serrill to expand and lengthen the project. For those who prefer a more analytical approach to a documentary like this, it's fascinating to observe how the film is constructed.

For Miramax Films, this is their first post-Weinstein release. It's a risk, since documentaries - even feel-good ones - aren't proven box office successes. Nevertheless, The Heart of the Game is aiming for the Hoop Dreams audience, although it should be noted that this film is neither as compelling nor as dramatically solid as the now-classic basketball documentary. The narrative voiceover by Ludacris is verbose, but not to the point where it derails the production. Additionally, there's too much game-by-game coverage (it becomes repetitive over six seasons). What really matters in this film are the lead characters - Resler and Russell - who are interesting enough to warrant such a cinematic endeavor. The upbeat film touches on serious issues without becoming lugubrious.

Heart of the Game, The (United States, 2005)

Director: Ward Serrill
Cast: Bill Resler, Darnellia Russell, Joyce Walker
Screenplay: Ward Serrill
Cinematography: Ward Serrill
Music: The Angel
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2006-06-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1