This earnest indie production comes across like formulaic fiction while taking cues from the "inspirational sports drama" playbook.
“Forever Strong” is billed as based on actual events — even though a closing-credits disclaimer indicates it’s entirely fictional — but this earnest indie production comes across like formulaic fiction while taking cues (and recycling cliches) from the “inspirational sports drama” playbook. Still, the performances are credible across the board, excessive sentimentality is largely avoided, and the sequences devoted to rough-and-tumble rugby match-ups are expertly shot and edited. Pic isn’t likely to score during its low-profile theatrical run, but ancillary playoffs could be profitable.Sean Faris, looking like Tom Cruise’s kid brother, is solid in the lead role of Rick Penning, a hard-partying rugby player who rarely impresses his demanding father. This is something of a full-time problem for the undisciplined teen, since his dad also happens to be the coach of his Flagstaff, Ariz., high school team. After nearly killing himself and his girlfriend during a DUI incident, Rick is shipped off to a Salt Lake City juvenile detention center, where a sympathetic administrator (Sean Astin of “Rudy,” the gold standard for inspirational sports movies) tries to nudge him onto the straight and narrow. Said path leads directly to Highland High School, home of a champion rugby team coached by Larry Gelwix, a real-life sports luminary (and tech adviser for this pic) effectively played as a soft-spoken, tough-loving sage by Gary Cole. Director Ryan Little, working from David Pliler’s by-the-numbers script, maintains a reasonably brisk pace while keeping the spiritual uplift relatively painless. (A brief discussion involving God’s role in Coach Larry’s game plan comes off as refreshingly matter-of-fact.) But the helmer never explains why and how a juvie hall inmate from out of state is allowed to play for a high school in Utah where he’s not enrolled. Nor does helmer Little clarify the rules of rugby for non-fans in the audience. (Fortunately, that doesn’t make the on-field action any less exciting.) And it’s never entirely clear why high school rugby players psyche themselves up before games by performing the ritual songs and dances of Maori warriors. It’s said to be a team tradition, but that doesn’t make it any less distractingly odd. On the plus side, Faris persuasively limns Rick’s transition from self-absorbed punk to selfless team player under Coach Larry’s patient guidance. Stand-out supporting players include, in addition to the aforementioned, Julie Warner as Rick’s understandably anxious mom, Max Kasch as a rowdy Highland player with personal hygiene problems, and Penn Badgley (TV’s “Gossip Girl”) as a Flagstaff teammate who feels betrayed by Rick’s reformation. First-rate tech values indicate the smart expenditure of a limited budget.