- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

Hollywood has glutted theaters with formulaic, often schmaltzy, team sports films in recent years. Each follows a now-standard pattern: An inspirational coach with a big personality motivates a team of talented young athletes to overcome adversity and personal demons to succeed in both life and sport. “The Heart of the Game,” a new documentary about a girls’ high school basketball team, is just such a movie. Despite its adherence to formula, the film is fresh and energetic in every way that its trite fictional counterparts are not.

“Heart” has the advantage of having captured a nearly perfect story, blessed with the sort of magical coincidence that would seem unbelievable in a fictional setting. At Roosevelt High School in a privileged Seattle suburb, Bill Resler takes his first-ever head-coach position helming a girls’ basketball team. Blessed with a string of great players, he employs zany inspirational strategies to turn the program into an unexpected success. During his third year, a skilled, brash young player with big-league promise named Darnellia Russell enters his program. The team sets its sights on beating its crosstown rival and winning the state championship, but Miss Russell’s personal struggles threaten their chances.

It’s a seven-year journey, but filmmaker Ward Serrill manages to compress it into a brisk 97 minutes. Never lingering on a single moment for too long, the snappy editing channels the unkempt energy of both the adolescent ballplayers and their quirky coach.

Mr. Serrill sank an unlikely shot in finding such an eclectic, entertaining set of subjects. Chief among these is Mr. Resler, a paunchy, balding, middle-aged man whose eyes still twinkle with childlike glee despite the droopy bags beneath them. He seems to be powered by unlimited reserves of both energy and patience, a must for someone dealing with any group as stubborn and occasionally maddening as high school athletes.

As much motivational speaker and life coach as basketball strategist, Mr. Resler talks of the sport in terms of primal violence, leading his team in chants of “Kill” and “Draw blood.” The players echo such sentiments, approaching their games as war: Opponents are “enemies,” and play is a matter of life-or-death seriousness. One young woman explains her devotion to the sport by saying, “That’s what I live for. The hunt. The kill.”

Although the young women get less screen time than Mr. Resler, they are equally engaging. As they make the messy transition out of adolescence, they are uniformly feisty, foulmouthed, driven and competitive — yet somehow also sweet and naive. Playing off their youthful spirits, the film captures the thrill of devoting oneself to a cause — even if that cause is just shooting hoops.

“The Heart of the Game” teases out the angst, contradictions and boundless passion of exceptional young women who have shaped their lives around a sport they love. Never drifting too far from the game, the film is similarly devoted, viewing nearly everything strictly through the lens of basketball. Only when it wanders briefly out of bounds into some of Miss Russell’s personal trials does it stumble, but this is hardly a foul. No, despite its familiar trappings, this is a movie that outplays others like it.

Aptly named, this film has both heart and game in abundance.

***

TITLE: “The Heart of the Game”

RATING: PG-13 for profanity-laced locker-room talk

CREDITS: Written and directed by Ward Serrill

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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