That this family film was made by two former "bad-boy" musicians, producer-star Ice Cube and director (and Limp Bizkit screamer) Fred Durst, isn't the biggest surprise of The Longshots. What's most amazing is that it doesn't collapse under the weight of so many sports-movie clichés (right down to its underdog title), and actually projects that "heart" screenwriters Nick Santora and Doug Atchison spend so much screen time espousing.
The impetus for Longshots was the 2003 national Pop Warner football tournament, featuring the Harvey Colts from Illinois. What made it a national news story was the appearance of 11-year-old Jasmine Plummer, the first female quarterback in the tournament's 56-year history. The real Jasmine is a fascinating subject, a nationally ranked wrestler and honor student, she's now running track and playing high school varsity basketball with an eye toward the WNBA.
What the filmmakers made of this story is both less and more: for dramatic effect, they have transformed the confident, gifted athlete into an uncertain 13-year-old social outcast in a dying industrial town. The shy, bookish Jasmine (Keke Palmer) has vague dreams of being the next Tyra Banks, longs for her absent father, and is mortified when her concerned mother (Tasha Smith) hires her aimless uncle as a babysitter.
The resentment felt by frequently intoxicated former football star Curtis Plummer (Ice Cube) at being stuck in a small, dead-end Illinois town is palpable, and his disconnect from the introverted Jasmine deep. That's until he sees his niece throw a football. It's a simple moment, but the effect is profound, lighting up his sullen face and eventually transforming not only the moribund Minden Browns, but sparking a revitalization of their beleaguered community.
What distinguishes this film is its low-key style, with widescreen visuals that hark back to the grainy naturalism of the 1970s. The location shooting in Minden, La., helps enormously in getting the feel of a town cut off from possibilities, and despite the teams' trip to the Super Bowl of youth football, director Durst (The Education of Charlie Banks) opts for realistic expectations over the standard Hollywood ending.
But Keke Palmer is The Longshots' MVP. Palmer uses the intelligence and stubborn perseverance she displayed as the spelling phenom in Akeelah and the Bee (2006) and takes it up a notch, as a devoted athlete who simultaneously discovers her own talent and what it really means to be a team player.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.