The Lionesses Roar
Remarkable High-School Sports Documentary Confronts Cultural Double Standards Facing Female Athletes
There's a moment late in Heart Of The Game where, in the last agonizing seconds before the buzzer, victory fumbles out of the grasp of Seattle's Roosevelt High School's girl's basketball team, the Roughriders. One of the players, insensate with disappointment, freezes where she has been knocked over and sobs facedown into the wooden floor. The team's coach, Bill Resler, spontaneously lies down next to her and rests his arm over her shoulders in a gesture of pure empathy. This extraordinary instant is captured so briefly director Ward Serrill must slow it down, like high-speed footage of a hummingbird's wings, to truly appreciate it. But it beautifully illustrates the devotion Resler has for his "pack of wolves," and how his loyalty is repaid in the flowering of many young female athletes, most noticeably the phenomenal Darnellia Russell.
Resler is an unlikely coach. He's shaggy and avuncular, and when you find out his other job is teaching the tax code at the University of Washington, you believe it. But his training methods--merciless drills peppered with predatory animal metaphors, all buttressed by deep, undiluted expectations of gender-neutral greatness--quickly show results. In amusing contrast to a Roughriders practice session, Serrill includes footage of women's basketball at the beginning of the century, the ladies in their team pinafores awkwardly passing, not dribbling the ball, so as not to cause nervous collapse from exertion.
We meet every team member, but Russell, a prematurely gifted freshman, shows the most promise--and the most obstinance. Nervous about how to conduct herself in an all-white school, she misses the first three weeks of practice over academic insufficiency and picks fights with fans in the bleachers. But Resler pushes hard and steers her to accept her "genius," as he puts it, both on and off the court. She starts to gain control over her self-defeating impulses, and by her junior year her grades are finally good enough to play with the varsity team. But when midgame she complains of stomach ache and back pain, it's as ominous a sign as Camille's cough. The sickness persists and Russell drops out of high school. She's pregnant, and had played full-court press for four months without knowing.
Her situation is precarious, but could be worse: An extended network of female relatives is available to help Russell and her boyfriend-not some neighborhood thug but a kid her age whom she has dated since the seventh grade-take care of the baby. Russell returns to high school postpartum, intending to finish her school year and become the first member of her family to graduate college, via one of the myriad basketball scholarships extended to her. But the Washington Interscholastic Athletics Association, the state's governing body for high-school athletics, denies her eligibility. A year of absence, in their eyes, can only be explained by "hardship." Enduring a difficult pregnancy and choosing to bear a child does not qualify. The scholarships stop coming.
Up to now, Heart has ably hit all the necessary touchstones for a well-constructed, feel-good movie about the positive effects of sports on young women. But at Russell's low point it begins its maturation into full, subtle, and profound excellence. Serrill deftly chooses his most telling footage to create an unblinking portrait of the situation and its players, keenly defining how the forces obstructing Russell's path to greatness are now rooted in the same untruths about female station, ability, and-even though it goes judiciously unstated by the WIAA-morality that corseted those pinafore-wearing players a century ago. But always at the hurricane's calm center is Resler, fussing over Russell's little girl, running the practices with every team member whether they've been formally included or not, and accompanying his star player to court when the wrongheaded ruling goes before a judge.
There will be easy comparisons between Hoop Dreams and Heart Of the Game, since both are excellent documentaries about athletics as the catalyst for an African-American's quantum leap to a self-determined life. But there's something even richer about this movie and its perceptive observations on a culture still deeply conflicted about unleashed women, and the power of a coach's unwavering agape love for his team of lionesses, and the liquid core of truth buried in the exhilaration of athletic triumph. Heart of the Game is an outstanding sports flick, a superb documentary, and may be the best movie of 2006.