The road to hell is paved with movies like “Under the Stadium Lights,” a well-intentioned but wearyingly ponderous and curiously disjointed faith-based drama about football players and their dedicated chaplain at a high school in Abilene, Texas. It doesn’t help much that, with its bumpy pacing, gaping plot holes, and supporting characters who grab attention and then inexplicably disappear, the movie plays like a miniseries that has been ruthlessly cut down to feature length. And it helps even less that the sluggish narrative is repeatedly and interminably padded with local TV footage of actual 2009 football games emblazoned with on-screen signage for local advertisers.
During the opening minutes, we’re informed: “Here in Abilene, we got faith, we got family, and we got football. The Holy Trinity.” Lest you think that just a smidge sacrilegious, consider the source: Chad Mitchell (Milo Gibson, son of Mel), an Abilene clergyman who serves as spiritual advisor for the Abilene High Eagles when he isn’t working as a cop. Actually, we see very little of Chad on the job as a police officer — which is probably a good thing, since he already devotes so much of his time tending to high schoolers and other spiritually needy folks that he often neglects his loving but not infinitely patient wife (Abigail Hawk) and their young daughter (Iris Siefert).
Chad is especially concerned about three players with troubled family lives: Quarterback Ronnell Sims (Carter Redwood), whose drug addict father is long on apologies but short on rehabilitation; running back Herschel Sims (Acoryé White), Ronnell’s cousin, whose mother is picked up for an unexplained parole violation and sent back to the slammer for a crime of some sort; and Augustine “Boo” Barrientes (Germain Arroyo), whose errant brother Zay (Nicholas Delgado) is seriously considering career opportunities as a drug-dealing gangbanger. Also on his radar: A former gang member turned Good Samaritan (Noel Guglielmi) who does everything but keep a vulture perched on his shoulder to indicate he won’t make it to the closing credits.
The performances are serviceable pretty much across the board, which goes a long way toward making some of the hokey dialogue bearable, and a few dramatic moments genuinely affecting. Laurence Fishburne gives the movie much more than it ever gives him as Harold, a character who exists almost entirely to lead a singalong of “Amen” in his barbecue restaurant, suffer a heart attack, and watch the climactic football game from his hospital bed. Fishburne comes off as such a warmly humorous presence that only a nitpicking film critic would complain that Harold is totally extraneous to the plot.
Working from a patchwork script by Hamid R. Torabpour and John Collins (based on the book “Brother’s Keeper” co-written by the real-life Chad Mitchell), director Todd Randall seldom develops much in the way of dramatic tension, and never even hints that a happy ending might not be in store for the Abilene Eagles.
The entire movie pivots on the notion that the Eagles were somehow shamed by closing out an otherwise perfect 2008 season with a first-round loss in the playoffs, and now are viewed, by themselves and everyone else in West Texas, as underdogs who require many inspiring pep talks from their coach (Glenn Morshower ) — and, of course, spiritual advice from Chad — to redeem themselves. But the 2009 games (represented, as noted earlier, by local TV footage) are presented in surprisingly tedious snippets sprinkled throughout “Under the Stadium Lights.” It’s one victory after another, on the road to a climactic rematch with the only team that defeated the Eagles in 2008. The outcome is, to put it kindly, predictable.