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'When the Game Stands Tall' is imperfect but resilient

**1/2 (out of four)

Like its title, the real life-inspired “When the Game Stands Tall” is earnest and a bit corny. If not for 2011’s great, Oscar-winning documentary “Undefeated,” which also featured a life-changing football coach, that probably would have been the title of this sports drama. I mean, “When the Game Stands Tall”? As opposed to “When the Game Lies Down in the Fetal Position”?

The football team at Northern California’s De La Salle High School won 151 consecutive games from 1992-2004. That’s unheard of, and a major accomplishment. On the one hand, it feels strange that “When the Game Stands Tall” ignores any roadblocks during that historic run. Other than the firm ideals of soft-spoken coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel, boring) and the program attracting talented players, it’s hard to grasp how all those wins—not just wins; demolitions—were accumulated.

Still, it would have been misguided to make the movie all about the record, since Ladouceur and his assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis) repeatedly emphasize that it’s only a game and streaks don’t matter to them. Much of the movie observes the players attempting to pick up the pieces after the amazing run ends. That includes Chris (Alexander Ludwig of “Lone Survivor”), whose stereotypically intense dad really wants him to break the state scoring record, and Danny (Matthew Daddario), the coach’s son who complains that he gets a coach when he needs a father and vice-versa. (Commence eye-rolling.)

Director Thomas Carter’s only other big-screen features this century are 2005’s “Coach Carter” (not about himself) and 2001’s “Save the Last Dance.” The guy likes inspiration and doesn’t do subtlety. The rousing “When the Game Stands Tall” bounces between something that works and something that doesn’t—a promising player being shot and killed just before heading to play at the University of Oregon seems like a “Boyz N the Hood” rip-off, except it really happened. Lines like “My husband’s turning your son into a man” are gag-worthy, but Laura Dern (as Ladouceur’s wife) is always compelling.

And the message is clear: Bonds come through emotion, not just adrenaline. Character and effort count for a lot. I like where “When the Game Stands Tall” goes, though I don’t like all of how it gets there. Clear eyes, full hearts, narrow victory.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.



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