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The Independent Critic

Bill Resler, Chris Bridges, Roosevelt Lady Roughriders
Ward Serrill
Rated PG-13
102 Mins.
 "The Heart of the Game" Review 
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"The Heart of the Game," a documentary based upon the experiences of the Roosevelt High School Roughriders' Girls Basketball Team over a six-year period under the guidance of University of Washington Tax Professor turned part-time basketball coach Bill Resler. The film follows Resler's occasionally unorthodox methods, and the impact they have on core players, most notably Darniella Russell, a troubled young girl who transferred to the mostly White school as a freshman at the insistence of her mother and middle-school coach.

Resler is inherently an entertaining figure, but his fierce determination, belief in his players and consistently positive demeanor elevates his players in ways both great and small. He assigns each year's team themes ranging from "pack of wolves" to "pride of lions" and beyond. Yet, despite his almost comical devotion to these themes his players are fiercely devoted to him, his ideas, and his team-oriented concept of winning.

The joy of "The Heart of the Game" is it presents these basketball players as equal to their male counterparts and, in some ways, superior. They work hard, practice hard, study hard, and are deeply human in their experiences, feelings, dreams and aspirations.

The "core" group of players upon which "The Heart of the Game" is based range from the economically privileged to the downright tragic. Early in the film we meet Devon, a young, enthusiastic girl whose hard work begins to pay off and she begins to participate with a Seattle club called "Players Only" under the guidance of a hotshot coach who will ultimately use her emotionally and sexually. Watching her reclaim her personal power years later is both heartbreaking and inspirational.

Much of the film, however, is devoted to the very special coach/player relationship between Resler and Darniella Russell. Russell is a troubled young woman prone to temper tantrums, school absenteeism and who struggles with maturity. It is her story that gives "The Heart of the Game" its emotional core as Russell, at the end of her junior year, drops out of school. It is found out weeks later that Darniella is four months pregnant.

How Darniella responds to this challenge, and how the team ultimately responds to her is the stuff that sports films are made of. There is, of course, a villain in the story...the WIAA, the organization that oversees Washington high school athletics. How this organization, the community and even previously interested colleges respond to Darniella as she tries to fight back is a frightening lesson in the ever-present lack of gender equality in our society's eyes.

"The Heart of the Game" is a film that follows these athletes almost exclusively in the gymnasium. With the exception of Darniella, we are not privy to more than descriptions of their home life. We do not follow them in classes or with friends...we follow this team, or "inner circle" as they call themselves, as they practice and play basketball. They are often funny, sometimes furious, but nearly always compelling in their honesty and sincerity.

While "The Heart of the Game" is a consistently entertaining film, it is not without its flaws. For example, too often there are hints of a storyline looking at the rivalry between Resler and cross-city rival Garfield High School coach Joyce Walker, a former Harlem Globetrotter who takes over the team for which Darniella would have played in her own neighborhood. This rivalry, especially considering the vast differences between the two teams, would have been an incredible addition to the film.

The film is narrated by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. His narration is simple, moves the story forward nicely but offers nothing extra in terms of excitement, energy or entertainment.

From a production aspect, the film often utilizes too many close-ups and occasionally is challenged to follow the fast-paced basketball action effectively.

"The Heart of the Game", written and directed by Ward Serrill, is a simple, yet effective documentary that treats with respect female athletes who are too often overlooked. They are not, in fact, treated as female athletes, but as outstanding athletes who are also female. There is a difference, and both Serrill and Coach Resler understand this basic fact.

The first acquisition by the post-Weinstein Miramax, "The Heart of the Game" is currently playing in only its second film festival in Indianapolis. The film will be in limited release in the U.S. on June 14th, but is likely to find more success on DVD. While Disney's "Glory Road" did prove there's still a market for well-made basketball films, the simple story and production values of "The Heart of the Game" make it a much stronger candidate for a tour of the festival circuit followed by a more extended DVD promotion and release.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic