The Heart of the Game is a new documentary that focuses on Darnellia Russell, a young Seattle woman who led her high school basketball team to a state championship. Imagine the best parts of Hoosiers and He Got Game infused with the passion of Hoop Dreams and you get the idea.
Filmmaker Ward Serrill initially planned to shoot the Roosevelt Roughriders for one season and create a documentary about the unorthodox coaching style of Bill Resler, a cherubic man who turned the team into champions. He ended up staying seven years, shifting the focus from Resler to Darnellia Russell a talented, but troubled teen who became the team’s star player.
The first half of the film is an entertaining, but standard sporting movie set up. We meet the players and get to know the passionate Resler, a round-faced man who looks more like Santa Claus than a basketball coach. Resler is the star of the film’s first half, eloquently speaking about the players and the recounting their triumphs. His approach is unorthodox. He uses animal metaphors to help the girls understand the killer instinct he is looking for, likening the players to a pack of wolves. “Devour the moose!” he yells during the game, kicking his wolf pack metaphor up a notch. His “Draw blood!” technique seems to unleash the inner beast in these teenage girls, and they become a formidable team.
It isn’t until we meet Darnellia that the movie becomes something special. She has an intuitive physical ability on the court, but it is her off-court struggles that provide the heart of the movie. When her personal life interferes with her basketball—and the possibility of getting a scholarship—the film becomes more than a just chronicle of a team of winners, it deepens to include social comment.
Like all good sports movies The Heart of the Game isn’t actually about sports. It is about the strength of the human spirit, the ability of the underdog to overcome obstacles and picking yourself up after you have fallen. These are all clichés, and it is easy to be cynical about a movie that so blatantly wears them on their sleeve, but often clichés are clichés because they’re true and Heart of the Game rings true and like the title suggests, has a lot of heart.