Perfectly cast as the most overbearingly demanding Texas high school football coach to appear on screen since Jon Voight made life miserable for James Van Der Beek in “Varsity Blues,” Brad Leland is the most valuable player in “The Last Whistle,” a modestly engaging indie drama that attempts, with mixed results, to traverse the middle ground between blunt-force criticism of win-at-all-costs philosophy and sentimental celebration of influential father figures.
Leland, arguably best known for his role as a small-town football booster in the TV series “Friday Night Lights,” is fearlessly, even aggressively unsympathetic during much of his screen time here as Victor Trenton, a Fort Worth area high school football coach who’s introduced as a skilled tactician whose winning ways may lead to his being hired by a prestigious university — but only if his team continues to, well, win.
Partly because he’s eager to impress his potential employer, but largely because he is an unforgiving disciplinarian, Trenton prepares for a big game by forcing everyone on his team to perform grueling and excessive maneuvers during an afternoon drill because one slackerish player (Tyler Perez) failed to show up on time. Unfortunately, another player — Benny (Fred Tolliver Jr.), one of the coach’s favorites — is fatally stressed out on the field during practice, as a result of a previously undiagnosed heart condition.
Writer-director Rob Smat plays fair during the aftermath of the tragedy, refraining from placing all blame for the player’s death on Trenton’s shoulders, but at the same time emphasizing that Trenton’s tone-deaf defensiveness, brusque rebuffing of criticism and alcohol-fueled self-pitying make him mostly worthy of the scorn and ostracism that is his lot after public opinion turns against him, school officials consider firing him — and Benny’s grief-stricken single mom (Deanne Lauvin) files a lawsuit against the coach not for monetary gain, but to keep him from ever coaching again.
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Not altogether surprisingly, Trenton starts to focus on the error of his ways, however begrudgingly, in the third act of “The Last Whistle.” Some viewers may be discomforted by the idea that the conspicuously Caucasian coach is more or less absolved, if not extolled, through a conveniently discovered testimonial written by the deceased African-American player. On the other hand, Smat is smart enough not to push things too far. The final scenes stop far short of providing the cheap thrill of a feel-good wrap-up, and are all the more effective for that. Indeed, Trenton evolves to a point that is emotionally and dramatically sound, Leland makes that evolution credible, and the movie ends precisely when it should.