Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Film Review: Facing the Giants

Facing the Giants
directed by Alex Kendrick
written by Alex Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick
starring Alex Kendrick, Shannen Fields, Jason McLeod, Bailey Cave, Steve Williams, Chris Willis, James Blackwell, Jim McBride

With a novice cast and a limited budget of $100,000, this film explores issues of faith, determination and capacity in an explicitly Christian milieu.

Grant Taylor (Kendrick) is going through an exceedingly rough patch. He’s a football coach at an all Christian private school who is prone to lose more games than he wins. His car is lousy, household appliances aren’t working properly and to top it all off he finds out he’s shooting blanks. The administration wants to fire him and this knowledge sends him into a depression that threatens to take over his life. His wife Brooke (Fields) is supportive but equally morose over the reality of never being able to spawn.

Despite his difficulties Grant still believes in God and speaks to him directly about his concerns. During much of the crisis Grant remains silent but once it reaches an almost unassailable point Grant’s fear kicks in and he turns to his Lord and Savior for guidance. This leads to a personal philosophy that he applies to his team. They promptly go out and lose the next game starting the season 0-3. Grant fires them up with a speech about how important it is to give God the glory even if they lose and later at practice he used the team captain as an example of what the team can accomplish if they put in their best effort.

From this point on, it’s a predictable sports movie as the team starts racking up wins. With God on their side they are unstoppable and they march on with only a slight bump in the road on to where they should be. There’s no mystery to how it happens and just where this little team will end up. It’s set up in the beginning as one learns of a championship team called the Giants who have won the last three championships. Still, despite the hackneyed approach to the penultimate scenes, it doesn’t much matter because in the end the film makers grab hold with an expert manipulation of emotion. The film is a cleansing at times and often triumphant. It’s a genuine Christian film where everyone involved is related more or less to the same church. The Preacher is named Jim McBride and he plays the irascible coach of the Giants, the fabulously named Bobby Lee Duke. If that’s not a football name, I don’t know what one is.

This is an example of what can be done with a minuscule budget and a whole lot of heart and grit. There are several moments of tremendous emotional weight and they carry the film along with the performances which all seem adequate for the job. These aren’t actors but they stay in the game and give believable, natural performances that don’t seem scripted.

This is clearly much more than a mere sport’s movie. God is thanked in nearly every scene and the intent of the film makers is quite clear. It seems obvious that they want this film to touch people in a most specific way so that they give their hearts to Jesus Christ. In that sense they are sermonizing and trying to get the good word out. This isn’t a terrible thing. There needs to be more room for films like this with an obvious agenda that deliberately intends on influencing the minds of its audience. They are up front and honestly lays their plans all out before the viewer; it’s apparent very early on where this film stands regarding faith. Over the course of the film their message becomes progressively more pronounced and admittedly for non believers it might be a tough go as there is a real sense of being preached at. However if one can get past this legitimate hurdle it is quite possible to enjoy this film strictly as a cinematic experience divorced of any particular agenda. As a film it stands up because it expertly plays on emotions without succumbing to sentimentality. Granted there are scenes that might be construed as melodramatic but this merely proves them to be effective vehicles for conveying the nuances of this powerful story.

As well as being a film about solidifying one’s relationship with God, this film offers a pro-family message that centers around the relationship between Brooke and Grant. Brooke is solid and grounded and she helps support Grant when he feels like he’s being sucked into a very deep, very dark hole. The chemistry between the two actors is quite realistic and it’s easy to believe that this is a married couple who find themselves behind the eight ball. Despite the financial and personal setbacks that Grant is suffering, Brooke remains steadfastly by his side. Her dedication lends the film a direction that football merely carries forth. Brooke’s sorrow is that she is denied what is to her the ultimate gift which is a child to care for. She says in one of the film’s most potent lines, “How can I miss someone I’ve never even met?” The line is delivered with such earnestness and heartache that it resonates throughout the rest of the film.

As Grant struggles to right himself and his team, he hits upon the idea of writing out a personal philosophy based on biblical truths. He presents it to the team as a challenge in order to improve their performances both on and off the field. His intent is to inspire the team to playing with more heart and to give God all the glory should they win or lose. It takes a while to set in and the team is still struggling to adapt their game when Grant shows them precisely what they are capable of if they merely put everything they have into everything they do. Grant uses a training technique with Brock (McLeod) , the team captain, that is painfully difficult and that shows them just where they might be provided they play strictly for God and not for themselves.

The film extracts sections of the bible to make a point about various characters. David Childers (Cave) is a puny kid with zero self confidence. He gets a tryout with the team and manages to impress them enough to land a spot on the team as a kicker. He’s not very good at first because he has a tendency to imagine himself missing before every kick. David asks why did God make him so small and weak. His father Larry (Steve Williams) instructs him that it’s because God always chooses such people to more dramatically show his power. Later David is struggling to find a rhythm in his kicking. Assistant coach J.T. (Willis) uses the analogy of the wide and narrow gates to teach him that he needs to think of the area between the crossbars as the narrow way. It works and David is from that point on his way to being a confident kicker.

The kids in this film all become one solid, impenetrable force that play football exclusively for their God. They kneel and pray at every opportunity because they have given themselves up to something they deem as much stronger, more potent then themselves. It’s the precise opposite of most sports films where the urgency is to believe in oneself and perform exclusively for the team only. The team doesn’t much matter in this film and the games are even less important. The sole purpose of playing football is for this team to honor God and to give him all the glory. It’s the only reason they make the effort everyday because they simply want God to work through them without them taking credit for any good that comes out of their actions.

The performances in this film are spotty but for the most part they work within the context of the film. Alex Kendrick and Shannen Fields despite having limited or no acting experience bring natural performances that are nuanced and realistic. These are people who are recognizable and each actor does a tremendous job conveying emotional truths in this film. Steve Williams conveys a strong presence that grounds the film and provides it with a solidity that keeps it focused. Chris Willis gives a comic touch to J.T., a quick-talking coach who keeps Grant honest and loose.

Overall, this is a film with exceedingly clear intentions. To the film makers this is much more than a mere cinematic work. The hope remains that viewers will be inspired by the film and ultimately get their life right with God. It is designed to bring people into a tighter relationship with their friends and family and to allow the light of God to shine through them. It’s an honorable film that occasionally does feel like it’s trying a bit too hard to accelerate its core principles towards its intended audience. Ultimately, it’s an emotionally solvent film that relates a specific message in a dramatic setting. It doesn’t pull punches and has no qualms with coming on strong with its directive. It’s a refreshing story that celebrates faith as a vehicle for worshiping God and spreading the feeling around a bit.

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