Girl Power Ups the Score In 'The Heart Of the Game'

The Roughriders and their coach, Bill Resler, who reveals himself to be as compassionate as he is ruthless in teaching his team to win.
The Roughriders and their coach, Bill Resler, who reveals himself to be as compassionate as he is ruthless in teaching his team to win. (Miramax Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006

Do you love sports movies? Are you a sucker for grit, gumption and high stakes? Did you love "Miracle," "Remember the Titans," "The Bad News Bears," for heaven's sake? Then "The Heart of the Game" is for you, and for anyone -- not just sports junkies -- who appreciates a stirring, inspiring tale of come-from-behind glory that has the added distinction of a gripping, do-or-die twist.

The chronicle of a charismatic first-time basketball coach who takes a girls high school team from ragtag obscurity to the state championships, the documentary "The Heart of the Game" combines nonstop action with an absorbing story to become a classic on a par with "Hoosiers" and "Hoop Dreams" -- with the best of "He Got Game" and "Glory Road" thrown in for good measure.

You need more? Well, let's see, there's the setting -- Roosevelt High School in Seattle, a mostly white, upper-middle-class school whose girls basketball team hasn't exactly burned up the boards in recent years. There's the coach -- a college tax professor named Bill Resler, who decides to moonlight as the team's coach out of love for the game and -- as the father of three daughters -- a belief in women's sports. There's the team itself -- a bunch of giggly, gangly girls who must overcome myriad cultural stigmas, from touching each other to competing on a jugular level, in order to win their first games. There are the initial David-and-Goliath victories, the intra-team squabbles, the sweat, the tears, the joy, the pain.

And then there's Darnellia Russell, a quiet freshman who possesses the intuitive physical genius of a great player. When Darnellia shows up, Resler knows he has something special on his hands; when her story takes a surprise twist and she's barred from playing, "The Heart of the Game" acquires an unexpected depth and urgency. Filmmaker Ward Serrill, who makes a promising feature debut here, followed the team for seven years starting in 1999, and that commitment paid off: With only a couple of exceptions, he was on hand for the most pivotal moments in the extraordinary story of the Roughriders and in the lives of its players.

Getting his camera right into the team's scrimmages, Serrill captures every squeak of a sneaker sole and every grunt of a guard ("Anybody I'm guarding dies ," one Roughrider pronounces, gleefully). But, most important, "The Heart of the Game" elucidates why teaching girls how to compete -- how to play with and against each other, how to own their physical power, how to win and how to lose -- is so crucial. Nearly 35 years after the passage of Title IX, which mandates equal funding for women's sports in schools, it's still subversively thrilling to hear someone tell a group of high school girls, as Resler does, to "sink your teeth into their necks! Draw blood!"

And it's exhilarating to watch as they take those words to heart and unleash the inner warriors that have been otherwise submerged. (Every year, Resler gives the team a progressively more predatory theme to internalize, from the relatively benign "Magical Journey" to "Pack of Wolves," "Pride of Lions" and "School of Piranhas.") As appealing as the individual Roughriders are, it's Resler who emerges as the true star of the movie, revealing himself to be as protective, compassionate and wise as he is ruthless.

"The Heart of the Game" is about a lot of things -- competition, growth, the complex matrix of class, race and gender, not to mention the visceral joy of watching great basketball. It's about personal odysseys and collective growth and the abiding power of the full-court press. It's about strength and character and, true to its title, it's about game. But it's mostly about heart.

The Heart of the Game (98 minutes, at AMC Loews Dupont Circle) is rated PG-13 for brief strong profanity.

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