The Heart of the Game
2006, PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Ward Serrill. Narrated by Ludacris.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., July 7, 2006
Darnellia Russell is a world-class athlete. Recruited for the girls’ varsity basketball team during her freshman year at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, Darnellia wants to play in the WNBA; at one point, she brandishes a fistful of college scholarship offers. She has a supportive family dedicated to her success, and she has an outstanding coach in Bill Resler, a tax-law professor who taught his own daughter to play. Resler turns the girls’ program around with sprint drills, hard work, and aggression – “Our mindset is, ‘Anybody I’m guarding dies,’” he tells his players – but Darnellia will have to struggle to stay in the game after she becomes pregnant and drops out of school temporarily. This documentary by first-timer Serrill, which screened at last year’s South by Southwest and now arrives at theatres, struggles to find its story and should have been edited as aggressively as the Roosevelt Roughriders play, as the film encompasses seven years and gets mired in other players’ stories, stretching itself too thin while leaving other questions open. There’s an overabundant voiceover (by rapper Ludacris) and a conceit involving the team’s mascot (who wears a green clown wig, green body paint, and a crocheted striped afghan) that vanishes inexplicably midway through the movie. Just the same, Darnellia is an inspiring and engaging heroine, and her story speaks volumes about the marginalization of women’s athletics: Even as the team does everything right, winning games and winning fans, Darnellia is barred from play by the state’s interscholastic board. After she re-enrolls in school and resumes pursuing her diploma, she’s still punished for being a teenage mother. And those scholarship offers? Forget it. There’s a wonderful storybook aspect to the ending, which I will not reveal, but this is not necessarily a feel-good story. It’s a story about people who keep plugging away in spite of their challenges because they love sport. It’s a good bet for youth audiences (the PG-13 rating is for one instance of language) and finds plenty of thought-provoking subject matter courtside. (See austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2006-07-07/screens_feature7.html for an interview with the director that occurred when the film played here in March during SXSW.)