Sweet-tempered sports flick has “sleeper” written all over it — if a smart distributor can get it to an under-served audience: rural over-40s and under-20 s. “Possums” reps a stellar turn for topliner Mac Davis, playing a small-town sports announcer who single-handedly keeps the local high school football team alive. It’s also a startling debut for helmer-scripter J. Max Burnett, who doesn’t hit a wrong note in the gently detailed family drama. Stereotype-free pic will resonate best in exurban areas, but its sincere optimism could also conceivably click with city kids. Down the line, it should be a hot direct-order video title.
Davis, whom most viewers may not have seen since the 1979 football feature “North Dallas Forty,” is a natural as Will Clark, a hardware-store owner and lifelong booster of the Possums, the increasingly pathetic pigskin kickers of Nowata, Okla. — a town that, itself, is on the verge of drying up and blowing away. Will wants to go on, but the retail giant Maxi Mart threatens to wipe out his business, and the town’s smarmy mayor, tight-suited Charlie Lawton (Andrew Prine), is ready to pull the plug on the school’s pricey sports program.
Even if the team always ends up on the wrong side of scores like 127-6, the lifelong game announcer’s ego is so tied up with his beloved Possums that he’s prepared to do anything to save them. When nothing works, he stumbles for a while, but then — shades of the Gipper — goes on the local radio station to give rousing play-by-plays of games that exist only in his head.
In this fantasy Nowata, the team wins for a change, much to the chagrin of Charlie and the amused dismay of Will’s level-headed wife (Cynthia Sikes). People figure he’s flipped, but by the time the fictional Possums head for state finals, the whole (very white) town gets behind him. This odd phenomenon makes regional news, which doesn’t sit well with the real champs from nearby Pratville , so the well-oiled football machine challenges our nonexistent heroes to a 3-D face-off — forcing Will to come up with an actual team in time for the Big Game.
This being a sports movie, story must climax with that contest, but even with a twist ending (which had Seattle preem aud cheering before tale was over), “Possums” puts more emphasis on character and texture than on gladiatorial action. Hicksville rhythms are just right, with Will calling employee and co-conspirator Jake (Gregory Coolidge) “the new kid,” even though he’s been around for more than a year.
Subplot has tousle-haired Jake, who may have faced some violence from his real dad, drawn to Will’s low-key nurturing, even as the older man agonizes about having pushed away his own son (Jay Underwood) years earlier. Burnett’s well-tuned script implies much and explains little, so when Will falls out with his wife, or Jake gets timidly involved with a pretty cheerleader, dialogue stays quirkily naturalistic instead of heading into neat telepic platitudes.
Exposition is aided by humorous Greek chorus of bench-bound old-timers (led by burly Dennis Burkley) who waffle in the town’s political winds. Pic has a gritty, matter-of-fact look that helps undercut sentimentality, and orchestral music has original ring to it, only occasionally going over the top. Main drawing card is Davis, whose reassuring presence is quietly charismatic, even if he doesn’t sing here.
Script could have dug a little deeper into lead character’s adolescent fixation (a la Britain’s “Fever Pitch”), but sketchiness is in keeping with helmer’s overall restraint, which makes pic’s slow-building emotionality all the more irresistible. Furthermore, non-hip story touches issues of identity and self-esteem that are relevant to Middle Americans caught in a changing economy.