Yet another movie reminds Judge Brendan Babish how lame his own high school experience was.
It's your life. Make every shot count.
Following Hoop Dreams and the Through the Fire, two documentaries profiling male high school basketball players, comes writer/director Ward Serrill's The Heart of the Game. The Heart of the Game documents six years of girls basketball at Seattle's Roosevelt High, and focuses largely on Darnellia Russell, the team's star player.
Facts of the Case
Initially, Ward Serrill had only intended to produce a modest film documenting a single season. That year the girls' basketball team had a talented roster and a new, eccentric head coach, Bill Rester. Indeed, it was a successful year, but Serrill still didn't feel he had enough material for a full-length documentary. His decision to continue chronicling the girls paid off the following year when incoming freshman Darnellia Russell joined the team.
The majority of the film is dedicated to Russell's tumultuous five-year high school career. There are several highlights on the court, but Russell's off-the-court problems nearly sidetrack her academic and athletic aspirations.
First, a full disclaimer: I have never been particularly enamored with basketball. To me, the game seems repetitive and puts too much of a premium on a single physical attribute (height). Professionally, the leagues are full of pituitary cases who often make tens of millions of dollars for warming up a spot on the bench. And that's not an exaggeration. As a man who comes up a few inches short of six feet, I prefer more height-equitable sports such as soccer or baseball.
I note this because The Heart of the Game reminded me of both how much I dislike men's professional basketball and also what a great sport it can be. Actually, to be more accurate, The Heart of the Game shows how great sports can be. Certainly the young girls of Roosevelt High are not world-class athletes; they're not the best basketball players in their country, their state, or even, some years, in their own city. But they are good; they work hard, they're passionate, and they exhibit a camaraderie you just don't see in professional sports.
The film begins with a brief profile of Bill Restler. Though he teaches tax law at the University of Washington, he's still somehow able to put in thousands of hours with the girls' team (and the position only pays $4,000 annually). Throughout the movie Restler acts as both mentor and comic relief for the young ladies. One season he speaks exhaustively about wolves in an attempt to instill the killer instinct in his team. The next year he motivates them with talks on tropical storms. It's all very silly, but Restler is also adept in serious situations. When one of his girls misses a shot at the end of a crucial game, she collapses on the floor and begins sobbing uncontrollably. Amongst the pandemonium Restler rushes over, lies beside her and whispers condolences into her ear.
Despite his continual presence, Restler is not the star of the film; Darnellia Russell is the one you're going to remember. Russell comes from a low-income, single-parent family and leaves behind nearly all her friends to attend the mostly-white Roosevelt High across town. Initially her grades suffer, and several times she considers quitting the team. However, Restler pushes her and by her junior year Russell's grades are up, she's besieged with recruiting material from Division I schools, and the team seems primed to take the state championship. I won't divulge what happens to Darnellia, or her team, but suffice it to say Serrill would have had difficulty constructing a more captivating storyline even if he had omniscient powers.
The problem with sports movies tends to be their predictability. Though the athlete(s) work hard, they will eventually be overmatched, yet somehow make it to the championship game. Usually they win, through they occasionally lose, but they always become better people through the experience. This convention is so entrenched that the movie Friday Night Lights had the Permian High School football team lose in the state finals, when they had actually lost in the semifinals.
Alternately, the great thing about sports documentaries is that anything can happen. No one would ever green light a sports film where a plucky girls basketball team works hard all season and makes it to the state tournament just to lose in the first round to an inferior opponent. But that might happen here. And this creates a level of suspense usually absent from dramatic films, and definitely lacking in dramatic sports films.
The Heart of the Game is an emotional, inspirational, and unpredictable movie that will entertain people of all ages and sexes. It doesn't even matter if you don't like sports. This is not a film about athletics; it's a film about the best of humanity. I know that sounds trite, but if you watch this movie and aren't affected, then you're as cold blooded as Rick James. Or you're the head of the WIAA (watch the movie, you'll get the reference).
As an added bonus, Miramax has put out a pretty fantastic DVD of the film. Writer/director Sirrell provides a commentary track in which he discusses many of the fascinating individuals who only appear briefly in the truncated documentary. There are also updates on most of the key figures of the movie, including footage of Restler and Russell promoting the film in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles. Though there are around a dozen deleted scenes included, at one point Serrill mentions that the original running time of the movie was four hours. This is such engaging cinema I would have gladly paid extra for a second disc with this cut.
I watched The Heart of the Game late at night, by myself, but was still jumping off the couch and pumping my fist. I usually don't even do that for live sporting events. This is one great movie.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Ward Serrill
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