As the first pickup by new Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek, "The Heart of the Game" doubtless will generate interest and invite scrutiny by industry observers. It remains to be seen, however, how much must-see vibe the pic can muster among mainstream moviegoers, or even arthouse habitues. Prospects may be brighter in homevid playoffs.

As the first pickup by new Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek, “The Heart of the Game” doubtless will generate interest and invite scrutiny by industry observers. It remains to be seen, however, how much must-see vibe the pic can muster among mainstream moviegoers, or even arthouse habitues. Comparisons to “Hoop Dreams,” favorable and otherwise, are hard to resist. But disappointing B.O. returns by other recent, well-crafted sports docs (“The Year of the Yao,” “Go Tigers!”) portend an uphill struggle for Ward Serrill’s compelling but traditional feature about an inspiring coach and femme basketball players at a Seattle high school. Prospects may be brighter in homevid playoffs.

Filmed over seven years, the pic devotes most screen time to Bill Resler, a gregarious U. of Washington tax professor with an abiding interest in sports. Despite his admitted lack of experience, he jumps at the chance to moonlight as coach for the girls basketball team — the Roughriders — at Roosevelt High School. Very quickly, he turns the perennial losers into tournament contenders, driving the team to play as relentlessly (and intimidatingly) as males.

Resler — whose slight resemblance to Santa Claus becomes more pronounced as he ages during the pic — often seems a comical figure while he exhorts his gangly femme hoopsters to “Sink your teeth in their necks! Draw blood!” But the girls take him seriously. “Heart of the Game” scores some telling points while tweaking gender stereotypes, playfully provoking thought while seriously suggesting that dunking and dribbling can be important steps toward self-empowerment.

Helmer Serrill gives only passing interest to most Roughrider players, few of whom emerge as distinct individuals. Still, the pic effectively and concisely renders the tragic story of an ace player who makes the mistake of hooking up with an exploitative private coach.

Docu’s second half gradually attains the shape and suspense of artfully designed drama as the focus expands to include Darnellia Russell, an extraordinarily gifted player who’s one of the few African-Americans on largely white team. The daughter of a cash-strapped inner-city family, Darnellia views basketball as her best chance for a college scholarship and, beyond that, a better life.

Unfortunately, her quick temper and self-destructive behavior prove major impediments, even with Resler’s unflagging support. Serrill makes the most of the real-life drama involving Darnellia’s legal battle to remain an eligible player after her schooling is interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy.

By paying so much attention to Darnellia’s story, “Heart of the Game” inevitably gives short shrift to a potentially more interesting angle: the rivalry between Resler, basically a savvy amateur, and Joyce Walker, a former Olympian and Harlem Globetrotter, who takes the job as girls’ basketball coach for Roosevelt High’s cross-town rival. Still, the climax of Darnellia’s legal struggle provides a satisfying emotional rush.

Hi-def lensing and other tech values are first-rate.

The Heart of the Game

Production

A Miramax Films release of a Woody Creek Prods. production in association with Flying Spot. Produced by Ward Serrill, Liz Manne. Executive producer, Larry Estes. Directed, written by Ward Serrill.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Serrill; editor, Eric Frith; music, the Angel; sound, Dave Howe, Mike McAuliffe. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 15, 2005. Running time: 105 MIN.
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