It’s all too easy to describe The Heart of the Game as "Hoop Dreams for girls," but this winning documentary reaches beyond the clichés of your typical sports movie. First-time director Ward Serrill takes an in-depth look at Bill Resler, a charmingly rumpled tax law professor who takes a side job coaching a Seattle high school’s female basketball team, the Roughriders. The result is an astounding drama that spans seven years, wrestling with issues of race, gender and class while capturing the struggles of competition with intelligence and intimacy.
The team (and the film) finds a star in freshman Darnellia Russell, an athlete with tremendous potential — but an array of dangers wait for her both on and off the court. Darnellia wanted to join her friends at gritty inner-city rival Garfield High, but headed across town to attend the predominately white Roosevelt High at the urging of her mother and middle school coaches.
While Darnellia serves as the thematic spine, the film has surprising developments, with subplots about feuds, disappointments and one player’s profoundly disturbing involvement with a predatory agent.
And coach Resler is a pudgy prankster with an infectious smirk, but he has an intensity that inspires his players to push beyond themselves and embrace something greater. He’s exactly the sort of mentor everyone wishes they had: funny and caring, with the ability to challenge and motivate his charges with his tremendous passion.
As the Roughriders progress from nobodies to perennial state playoffs favorites, the stakes grow exponentially higher, the pressure from all sides becomes nearly unendurable. The only real problem is that the filmmakers have almost too much material to work with, and the focus shifts often.
Heart of the Game is remarkable because it’s just as much about failure as it is winning, with the daily agonies of growing up only intensified by the nature of competition — which makes the victories even sweeter.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.