What is it about sports that makes us snap to attention? It’s been a good 12 years since Steve James went and blew everyone’s mind with Hoop Dreams, and we’re still obsessed with sports as tool for personal triumph. Although, it hasn’t gone all-too-well with narratives (I offer Glory Road, Remember the Titans, and For Love of the Game into evidence) but as far as documentaries go, the reputation seems pretty untarnished. Audiences, for quite some time, love the idea of the underdog winning and society has been grateful enough to give us plenty of stories to turn into tear-drenched sentiment and well-meaning Channel 6 special reports. Ward Serrill
knows this, but his documentary isn’t unforgivable tear jerking, at least not completely.
In the economical valley-and-canyon area of Seattle, Bill Resler
makes a decent living as a professor of taxes and has made a good life for his wife, three daughters, and himself. One thing has gone wanting: his love for basketball. To quench it, he takes on a job at Roosevelt High School as head coach for the Roughriders, the female basketball team. Right off the bat, he’s a natural at pushing the girls and getting them psyched, using the symbolism of “a pack of wolves” and “a pride of lions” amongst others. He gets coach of the year award in his first year but things soon turn sour when a team member, Devon Crosby-Helms, becomes isolated and hard to deal with. However, it’s at this time that Resler finds a new reason to love the game. Article continues below
Her name is Darnellia Russell
, a freshman who has a honed talent with the orange ball. Though she starts off slow and hard to read, Darnellia livens up the team and becomes one of its main stars along with a white, well-off girl, Hillary Seidel. Unfortunately, the two have problems with each other and mounting losses cause Darnellia to quit school and basketball. Resler, not content with her decision, finds out the real reason and makes it his mission to get her back into school and back on the team to face their rivals, the cross-town Garfield Bulldogs.
Serrill has found basis for film not so much in story (though it is one worth telling) but more in the characters of Darnellia and Resler. Resler, who is described in the press release as looking like “Santa Claus in Birkenstocks”, has a calm and educated look and sound to him, but he pushes the girls to “draw blood,” “kill!” and to “look in their eyes!”. In the locker room, he is balanced and blunt, never denying the losses but never giving the girls too much grief. Darnellia, a more decent and honest teenager than I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, has a magnetic personality and is full of grit and determination.
Seeing these two on-screen, with teammates and peers, gives a gentle, understated understanding to rural and suburban life in Seattle and to the game. Serrill never digs deep enough or goes for the grandeur of Hoop Dreams, but why try to copy? The Heart of the Game has its own priorities and they speak loudly, in similar tones as James’ film. To watch the final game between the Bulldogs and the Roughriders is just a simple bow to the love of competition and the game, letting the tension mount until (literally) the last second. Any parent who shies their children away from competition, take a look at Darnellia and the other girls on the team and tell me the youth of America couldn’t use a little of that.