July 6, 2006

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The Heart of the Game (PG-13)
High school girls battle for a basketball championship and against various pressures seeking to bring them down in The Heart of the Game, a passionate, rousing sports documentary.

The movie spends seven years, predominately following the girls varsity basketball team at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. The team is coached with enthusiasm by Bill Resler, a tax professor who found his love for the basketball (both the game itself and its confidence-building possibilities) when his daughters played it. After landing the coach job, Resler gets the team in shape with the standard sports-movie training technique of building the girls' endurance so they can continue to play long after their opponents tire. As the seasons go by, he picks new themes for each group of girls: pack of wolves, tropical storm, piranhas. He teaches the girls to be aggressive and to use that aggression as a team (the pack of wolves works together to hunt and draw blood). The girls seem thrilled with this kind of training that treats them like warriors — the same kind of talk you usually hear reserved for boys teams. At the same time, he stresses that the girls are the "inner circle" of the game and pushes them to work out team problems themselves, keeping himself and parents out of it.

While we meet a few of the more standout players, the real girl star is Darnellia Russell, a girl from a poor neighborhood in Seattle who goes to the more affluent Roosevelt High School because her mother hopes she will succeed not just athletically but also academically there. Darnellia shows promise as a freshmen, but struggles with her grades. Even though she is clearly the team's best player, these academic problems as well as the social pressures of fitting in at Roosevelt make her school years difficult. In her junior year, she drops out after the team loses an early game during the playoffs. (On the one occasion where I thought it might be helpful to have at least a female assistant coach on the time, Darnellia complains about feeling sick to her stomach, an ailment which would have instantly raised the suspicions of a female grown-up.) The drop-out, we learn, is in part due to a pregnancy.

In a lot of ways, how Darnellia fights to get her life back after the pregnancy is the real drama of the movie. She eventually has to go to court to be allowed to play on her team and make one more attempt at the high school playoffs (an at landing a college scholarship).

Darnellia and Resler, two giant personalities, dominate The Heart of the Game. We get pulled in to Darnellia's struggles, ones that seem so completely determined by her socioeconomic status, and cheer for her when she fights back. In Resler, we get a coach who brings honor and excitement to the field of inspiring others to achieve. He pours his heart into building these girls up and teaching them the fundamentals without turning the game into a measure of his personal achievement or falsely inflating the importance of the sport in the grander scheme of life. (Girls, after all, have no multi-billion-dollar sports industry waiting for them, post-college.) Resler maintains the difficult balance of pushing his team to achieve on the court so that they can later achieve different things (degrees, pro-ball careers or careers in completely different fields).

More than perhaps any other recent sports documentary, even more than Murderball, The Heart of the Game brilliantly demonstrates the non-athletic benefits of sports, especially for girls. Even Darnellia, who makes some of the mistakes that sports are supposed to help girls avoid, is able to fight her way back into school, onto the team and into a mindset of achievement and maturity, in part, it seems, because of the perseverance and problem-solving she learned through basketball. The movie is an excellent piece of salesmanship for not only protecting girls' sports teams from budget cuts but for the money to find top-notch, achievement-oriented coaches like Bill Resler who are more interested in producing strong, successful students than they are in simply winning games. A


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