The New Coach Has a Secret Weapon.
The sports film is a much maligned yet persistently effective genre, which in recent times, has afforded explorations into larger human themes through little-known histories of small town sports success. The Longshots (08) is just such a film exploring those larger issues while giving a more personal journey, much like one of my favorites, Rudy (93). The Longshots (08) gains its personal journey from the real life exploits of Jasmine Plummer, who became the first female player in Pop Warner football history.
Typically these films attack in either of three ways: serious tone - The Natural (84), Cobb (94); comedic Little Giants (94), Bad News Bears (76) and Major League (89); or true life historical tale - Remember the Titans (00), Glory Road (06), Hoosiers (86) and Rudy. Most follow the plotline of the rise of an underdog to become top dog. I must admit, being a sports fan, I’m a sucker for these films(e.g. Karate Kid (84)). And they are aplenty. Partly because I truly believe the most exciting pure drama is in live sports, and these films give you a taste of that dramatic elation.
Otis Redding’s “Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)" wonderfully underscores the glum opening imagery of a town down-on-its-luck, eerily reminding me of my own Detroit hometown. We are introduced to Minden, Illinois, a predominately black, but racially mixed town where middle schooler Jasmine Plummer(Keke Palmer) lives with her hard-working mom, Claire (Tasha Davis).
It’s where the local Reverend Pratt (Garrett Morris) holds sway over a blue collar Midwest town, where people are good, church-going folk. He provides the film’s opening salvo, sermonizing about appreciating what they have.
Within the local park are “three wise men” denizens (comedians, Earthquake and Michael Colyar). In their own humorous way they play a part in this town’s uplift, revealing the distinct characters and personalities which inhibit the town. We meet Curtis Plummer (Ice Cube), a local former football hero. Certainly at a low in his professional and personal life now, even his love of football has tempered. Curtis claims his daily spot in his own Budweiser-plied tranquility, watching the local football team, The Minden Browns, an even more down-on-its-luck team that hasn’t won in ages.
Curtis reluctantly baby sits his niece, Jasmine, daughter of his deadbeat dad older brother, Roy (Malcolm Goodwin), another former local football hero, when her mom needs to work late at the local diner, a popular gathering spot on the town’s Main Street. A street which becomes the centerpiece for the town’s later "pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap" revival through the team’s success.
By taking its time to get to the football storyline, the film creates a heart and soul base that deftly fleshes out its main characters.
Jasmine and Curtis immediately clash. Soon thereafter, Curtis embarrasses her at school, where she’s already ostracized and tormented for being demure. Chloe Bridges smoothly plays the part of the classic popular girl tormentor, a staple character in teen films.
Curtis and Jasmine's relationship proceeds from toxic to bonding through walks metaphorically taken down a set of railroad tracks.
In these railroad moments with Curtis and in an earlier scene with her mother, where Jasmine confidently says she can watch herself, we sense the moxie which serves Jasmine well in her football position.
Unable to connect to, and with Jasmine eavesdropping in, Curtis complains to her mother, even calling her, "moody and weird.” Her mom apologetically provides insights into the distant behavior by revealing Jasmine’s preoccupation with her absentee dad through a symbolic watch.
Sticking with Jasmine and slowly developing that bond, Curtis notices her strong throwing arm and introduces her to the game of football.
Curtis trains her, shown cutely through a montage, then feels she’s ready to try out for the local Browns. Regardless of the team’s apparent lack of talent, Coach Fisher (Matt Craven), a grumpy but likeable regular guy, at first refuses to budge. Soon it's obvious she’s better than the team’s present starting quarterback and she's named the starter - not without some hilarious prodding from Curtis and the “peanut gallery”.
With Jasmine on board, the wins come quick and in a hurry. Before they get to the top of the standings, we witness the football field trials, tribulations, lessons, humorous follies and special circumstances for a girl on an all boys team. One of the film’s strong points is how it retains the edginess of the gritty city.
The town’s plight and Curtis’ personal and professional life become intertwined. Curtis courts Jasmine’s teacher and he has to coach the team when Fisher falls ill. Not only skilled on the gridiron, Jasmine’s reveals her shrewd, motherly-daughterly-sisterly advice, giving Curtis just the right insight to help get him on track to a productive and happy life, while he helps her come out of her own shell.
Throw in the sideline complexity of a deadbeat dad looking to ride in on the coattails of his daughter’s fame, and you have a winning combination. Where the syrupy sentiment tips the rim, it doesn’t quite overspill and defeat the goodwill the film establishes early on.
Like many sports movies, in order to keep the pace brisk the storyline is streamlined in various forms and dramatic license is used. But The Longshots certainly deserves a place next to other endearing slice of life true stories that illuminate the wondrous world of the sports arena.
Part of it is the director’s restrained visual minimalism. Working from a Nick Santora (Law and Order, Prison Break) script, with some rewrites by Akeelah and the Bee‘s (06) Doug Atchinson, Fred Durst - I know poisoned pens are ready for the Limp Bizkit frontman, whose helming his second feature after the little seen, The Education of Charlie Banks(07) - exhibits a welcomed low-key style and does well with the material. The one noticeable detriment is the film’s muted cinematography from Conrad W. Hall. Surprisingly considering his prior work, it comes across here as flat rather than insightful, or grittily authentic. Strong performances, clearly defined character types and the Americana milieu scores a winning endorsement as one of this summer’s best. Even one of the year's best.
There’s no doubting Keke Palmer’s fun and fine performance. Unexpectedly, Ice Cube, whose performances have been questionable on occasion, centers the film with probably his best performance yet. Like many of his roles, this one embodies the gruff traits we’ve come to expect. His believability and command of camera have never been stronger.
The absentee father theme tugs resolutely at heartstrings. For those who have experienced this, divorce driven phenomenon, amongst other social affects, especially in my, the African-American community, it will resonate well. For those who haven’t, I don’t see how Jasmine’s visually succinct, dramatically final decision at the film’s end wouldn’t bring tears to the eyes. A powerful effect for any film.
And I think, Rocky (76) withstanding, many will agree that the final game’s heart-wrenchingly dramatic final seconds may be the best you will see in a sports film ever. The filmmakers should be commended on choosing what few films would have chosen as the game's end.
© by Julian Boyance, completed, August 21, 2008
What do you think of The Longshots
Share your opinions on our forum