Review: The Heart of the Game
The trailer for the documentary The Heart of the Game makes a point of trumpeting the fact that the film is “based on a true story,” which, of course, it ought to be by definition. On one level, this phrase is an easily-understood marketing shorthand for “uplifting tale of ordinary triumph!,” but on another, it's there to let the audience know that this is not in fact yet another mockumentary. (There are waaaaaaay too many mockumentaries. Note to mockumentarians: Please stop.)
Sports documentaries generally either play out an underdog-makes-good narrative, or mythologize individual players or teams. Ward Serrill's film is stuck in a difficult position between the two, with his milieu – high school girls basketball in Seattle, Washington – lacking the gravitas to pull off a proper “sports legend” story, and his subject, the nearly-undefeated Roosevelt Roughriders being nothing like underdogs in spite of a few setbacks here and there. The film isn't about overcoming adversity (though there is a subplot for a key player which does follow that trajectory), but rather a study in how winners go about the act of winning.
Much of the movie is focused on the team's coach, Bill Resler; a shlubby, affable tax professor who leads his team to an impressive record in his first-ever season as the head of a basketball program. He's a highly effective leader, at first dismantling the team's offense entirely, and then going on to motivate his girls to revel in their aggression. He's supportive and easygoing, and capable of transforming timid teenagers into a collective of “warriors” on the court. The girls' enthusiasm provides the film most of its energy, though the story begins to coast along in its third act in spite of plot points including the sudden pregnancy of a star player and a high-stakes state championship match against their scrappy hometown rivals. By that point, you will certainly have enough invested in the players and the coach to want to see how things turn out, but the film has long since exhausted anything that it had to say.
It is notable that rap star Ludacris provides all of the narration in the film. His charismatic drawl is far more restrained than what you may be used to hearing on his records, but it is nonetheless quite entertaining. More rappers ought to make the transition into narration, if just for the fact that clear enunciation and a compelling vocal presence is a natural part of their skill set, and that we all could benefit from voiceovers that aren't entirely dry and uptight.