What's the First Commandment of Athens football? Let the bone roll!
We live in a world preoccupied by sport. Athletes, the new superstars, tie their performance to a myriad of deals and marketing that makes them a part of our everyday existence, even if we aren't fans. This skill and muscle mentality has become so ingratiated into our world, so important to our way of living, that minor blips on the sports radar cascade into major news and social events. Baseball players threaten to strike, and a nation makes it a matter of national pride and patriotism for them to remain on the diamond. Whether or not a certain basketball star will return to the court and re-ignite the game with his fading past glory spurs barroom debate and product placement conjecture. But nowhere is this fan fever more impressive (and oppressive) than in football. Having long surpassed Abner Doubleday's dream as the national pastime, the titans of the gridiron wage war every Sunday to the obsession and impression of the masses. From the Super Bowl down to the pony leagues, it has molded our notions of toughness and success, and outlined the levels of popularity within the social fabric. Nowhere more so than in high school, where groups are defined and accepted by their allegiance to, or ability to play the game. Hometown Legend wants to celebrate this game and add its own ideals of team athletics as a means of salvation and personal redemption, not only for the players but also for its fans and community. However, the message of faith and brotherhood is drowned in a wave of clichés and a playbook filled with confusing motivations.
Facts of the Case
On a fateful night in Athens, Alabama, head football coach Buster Schuler lost his son in a freakish on-field accident. Twelve years later, the town and its team are on their last legs. Coach Schuler has decided to come out of retirement and return to the high school for one last season to hopefully lead the Crusaders to victory. But the students are not just playing for pride. The town offers a full scholarship to the University of Alabama (in memory of the fallen hero) as a reward to the top player. On the day of tryouts, Coach Schuler weeds through the new recruits, settling on a team that includes the son of the town's diner operator, his own nephew, and an outsider, Elvis Jackson.
Elvis is a drifter, coming to Athens in hopes of escaping his past and winning the scholarship. But he faces tough competition from the rest of the team, and skepticism from the coach. About the only person on his side is his Fellowship of Christian Athletes "prayer warrior" Rachel Sawyer, a young lady whose job it is to support Elvis throughout the season. As the weeks go by, the team's numbers start to dwindle, as coach Schuler cuts members for not joining in during an on-field fight, and ratting out their fellow teammates. Eventually, he is down to 15 players, and is convinced they have what it takes to win the State Championship.
As the big game looms, Elvis and Rachel grow closer. She discovers that Elvis is involved with the team for his own, selfish reasons. She tries to impart within him a desire to see the bigger picture and plan for his life, the team and the town. Elvis, the product of failed dreams and multiple foster homes, can only see the scholarship as the light at the end of his very dark tunnel. During the semi-finals, Elvis is hurt and learns he cannot play in the championships. As the players march onto the field for what could be the final game in the team's (and the school's) history, lessons are learned and truths uncovered that change the perception of for what, and for whom, they are playing for, and what the concept of winning really means.
It is difficult to approach a review of Hometown Legend without sounding like either a snobbish crank or a blasphemous oaf. To argue with its themes of faith and belief in a higher power is to sound crass and soulless. To state that its structure is incredibly formulaic and predictable is to undermine some attempts by the filmmakers to circumvent the same hoary old clichés present in most sports films. But the truth is that aside from the one or two novel plot twists near the end (where the standard "everything is riding on the final big game" machinations are happily thwarted), everything else about this film is obvious. Everything except for the way it treats its main subjects: the sport of football and the question of faith. In both instances, the film cheats. It attempts to be authentic in its knowledge of the game, and joyful in its celebration of God. But it fails on both accounts, no matter how hard the actors work to sell the story, or how earnest the intentions of the filmmakers and director.
Frankly, the film disappoints its subject matter. The script is just not true to football, as a sport or a pastime or a religion. It is clueless when it comes to the technical reasons for why a team wins or loses, and seems to think that a literal overnight switch from an all wishbone/running offense to an all aerial/passing attack would somehow lead to instant and immediate success. Anyone with any knowledge of the sport can only find this laughable. As is the notion that the football team, no matter how heinous and embarrassing they were, would fail to draw a small town crowd to a Friday night game. The town of Athens does not appear to have a thriving theater community, or local stock car raceway. In many small southern towns football IS the way of life, so what else would these Alabama rubes have to do before a Saturday college game or a Sunday in front of the tube to watch the big boys than settle in for a little minor league football? To make the team's acceptance and support linked to success derails the final minutes of the film and makes the ending ring untrue and hollow.
But at its core, the film misunderstands football as a religion because it sets up an unfathomable and unsettling ideal. The sport is all consuming, and can lead to irrational and unsettled behavior. But Coach Schuler's actions are plain unbelievable. He is a cipher, a man without a major characteristic to make his comeback or crusade for a State Championship seem all that viable or normal. He watches his son die a particularly nasty death on the same field where he intends to coach, and we are supposed to understand that it is an issue of closure and moving on for him. Of course this is never explained, but implied ever so slightly. The better answer would be that Schuler is obsessed with the game, with the profound overall effect it had on his life. Using this reality, and playing upon it more would have been truer to the controlling and life altering nature of the sport than to make it some sort of spiritual quest for a final act of attrition. As so often is a case with a film involving a sport, the makers do not understand it, do not try to comprehend its importance or power, and use it as pointless window dressing to the bigger themes they want to explore. But if you can't sell your onscreen version of football successfully, there is not much hope for your broader scope.
As for the casting and acting, it is quite accomplished for a lower budgeted, made outside the mainstream film. Longtime favorite Terry O'Quinn (The Stepfather, TV's Millennium) plays the fierce, fiery football coaching legend as a series of euphemisms, catch phrases, and mannerisms. Sometimes they can be annoying (if he takes that hat off one more time and rubs his head…), but he embodies the empty figurehead role he is given proudly and convincingly. Even more surprising in the subtle and skillful work of Party of Five's Lacey Chabert. Light years away from her nagging interstellar brattiness of Lost In Space, she is the kind of actress, with an open face and sweet demeanor, who could have been better used to sell the pro-Christian message of the film. The scenes in which she discusses faith and prayer have an honest passion about them, one that could have truly exploited the movie's sense of morality. Her Rachel Sawyer is the best character in the film. On the other hand, newcomer Nick Cornish is nothing much to celebrate. He can brood and seem intense, but he carries none of the baggage that would make an audience cheer his change of heart or spiritual awakening. He becomes a pawn, stepping along the set path to the film's mandated conclusion. All the other young actors are satisfactory and create a decent ensemble feel. They do not have much to do, however, or much to differentiate between them. Aside from the strong work of Chabert, the cast is all victims of a weak screenplay which makes their motives and personalities too vague to be vital, or even archetypal.
But perhaps the greatest sin the film commits is the sin of weakness. The moral message is badly underplayed, in hopes of not scaring the secular audience away. But religion need not be a stumbling block to great storytelling and character development. It should enhance, not deny the film its very essence. The producers wanted to instill a Christian message of faith and personal redemption within the confines of this hokey humble football film, but it gets lost since it's hardly even there. They should have moved it to the front burner, made the tone more fire and brimstone and less languid and secret. Perhaps if these characters had been more vocal in their beliefs, the entire tone and tenure of the film would have changed. It would have been uplifting to see a group of young people succeed because of the power of prayer and strong religious conviction. But when you only hint at, or sugar coat it so as not to offend the masses, you've done yourself and your message a great disservice. When Terry O'Quinn apologizes before praying with the team, it is a slap in the face of both the faithful and faithless. Those who believe will sense him making an excuse for his actions, while those without spirituality will view it as a backhanded attack on their desire for a separate church and state. Neither of these notions are completely without merit, but the film wants to uplift the human spirit, to have us believe in a higher power and a sense of conviction and purpose, not worry about Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution.
And the filmmakers could even go so far as to accuse Warner Brothers of conspiring against them with their subservient transfer of Hometown Legend. It's not that the image is badly compressed or filled with defects. Far from it. The picture here is a stunner. And it's not that the Dolby Digital Stereo Surround is underdeveloped, because it is not. There is awesome separation in the mix, with a real "being inside a stadium" feel. So what is Warner's main crime? It's offering a sports film filled with frame to frame action and compositions in a horrendous full screen pain and scan nightmare. Just why did this movie have to be offered in full screen? Is Warner acknowledging that most people who would be drawn to a title like Hometown Legend don't comprehend or even appreciate the concept of letterboxing? Are they really saying that simple films demand simple treatment? It is an honest shame, since the widescreen format would do wonders to broaden the action and the impact of the sports scenes in the film. And even the quieter, more intimate moments would be accented by seeing the total framing composition. While the full screen version of the movie is tolerable, it cannot be the best possible way to view this film.
As for the extras offered in the DVD package, many of them smack more of propaganda than supplementation. There is a commentary track featuring producer Dallas Jenkins and director James Anderson, both young first time filmmakers. The information they offer is intriguing, since they spend most of their time divulging the secrets and shortcuts they had to implement to make this independent film feature for only two million dollars and in 28 days. They are incredibly hard on themselves, and some of the mistakes made are not obvious until they point them out. Their earnest attitude makes for entertaining, if occasionally cloying, listening. As for the rest of the extras, they play like extended (and sometimes, actual) advertisements for author and entrepreneur Jerry B. Jenkins. Best known as the author of over 140 (!) books, including the infamous "Left Behind" series, he wears his Christian dogma just above his sleeves, and his hidden agenda doesn't become obvious until you read the titles of his fiction and non-fiction works, or listen to him talk about the film. Then it becomes crystal clear that this is a man on a campaign to change the spiritual life of the world, one volume per person at a time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is rare that a film so filled with heart, so completely honest in its faith and moving in its message would come out of anything near Hollywood. Hometown Legend marries football to fundamentalism in a way that celebrates the best things in both. Sure, there are some plot issues and shortcuts that have to be avoided, but these are not the result of sloppy filmmaking or careless consideration for the audience. No, this is the result of Tinseltown's unwillingness to finance something this based in faith and the creators had to work with the little money and time they had to create something truly special. Only those who have buried their compassion in countless hours of mindless sex and violence entertainment will sneer at this quality family film. But be warned. Exposing yourself to the simple values and sense of spirituality present in Hometown Legend just might disway you from more secular, soulless works of cinematic sin.
On its surface, Hometown Legend is a fine film. No, make that an exceptional film. There is warmth, humanity, and a clear sense of conviction in its plain, straightforward story. It features real people dealing with issues as diverse as their future and their faith. But that is only on the surface. Dig deeper, and one finds a deficient plot, no three dimensional characters (save for Lacey Charbert's Rachel Sawyer), a devil may care attitude toward the game of football, and a Christian message that is simply too soft to be effective or impressive. And in our ra-ra-ra reality of athletics as symbols, the film cannot find the proper analogy or fitting metaphor. Like the Chicago Cubs or Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Hometown Legend is a film that swears it's part of the major leagues, but simply should not hold a bat or a ball with the majors. And it's really too bad. There is a great film to be made about football, belief, and finding one's inner spirit. Unfortunately, those hoping to find it in this DVD from Warner Brothers will be wasting valuable moments off the entertainment shot clock. The only place this Hometown Legend is celebrated is in its own, self-serving DVD extras. Game over.
Hometown Legend is found guilty of being too afraid to confront football and religion head on. The cast is remanded to Sunday school for an elementary Bible refresher course. Warner Brothers is sentenced to 40 days and 40 nights in solitary confinement for failing to present this film in any format other than full screen.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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