Host: Louis Gossett Jr.
Built on a game plan of good intentions, “Gridiron Gang” is ultimately sacked by its own earnestness. Inside this overlong two-hour documentary, there’s a snappy little comedy anxiously trying to break free.
The premise of “Gridiron Gang” is simple. Take a bunch of tough teens–“wild, untamed, dangerous,” we’re told–from a maximum security juvenile prison near Malibu, teach them about cooperation, selflessness, sportsmanship and (heavy bass chord, please, maestro) life through football, then watch them, if not exactly mutate into All-Americans, at least learn the importance of contributing 110% over the course of a season as they mold themselves into a team.
Director/co-producer Lee Stanley has achieved something of a hybrid here between “Boys Town” and “Wildcats,” with sentimentality winning in a rout. Which is too bad. The kids themselves deserve better.
Most who wind up at Camp Vernon Kilpatrick are gang members whose short lives carry long rap sheets. Most are black. Most come from troubled homes. Most have had experience with drugs and weapons. Most have no respect for authority and little real respect for themselves.
What Coach Sean Porter and his assistants achieved with them in just a few months is commendable; a year after the show was shot, all 35 team members had been released and only five had been returned to detention. The kids also came to play some pretty good football.
The problem is that Stanley treats this with stultifying pretension, the kind that permeates NFL-produced game films with those dramatic narratives that try to equate goal-line stands with curing cancer. Rarely does his interviewing or camerawork find the boys within the boys; when they do, they indeed provide some moving moments of pain and revelation.
Stanley worked this turf before, with far better results in “Desperate Passage,” his Emmy-winning docu on the voyage–inner and outer–of street kids on a sailing trip. The filmmaker certainly seems committed enough to his subject. But what felt interesting and fresh on a sailboat feels far less compelling on the football field.