The marketers who rule Hollywood would kill for the Seattle audience awareness of the locally made SIFF favorite documentary The Heart of the Game. We knew about it well before its SIFF '05 in-progress screening, before Roger Ebert raved about it at Toronto last fall, first reading about it—for those who study the sports pages—back in March 2004, when the Roosevelt girls high-school basketball team met Garfield for the state championship. That game went down to the final seconds (no spoilers here), and the seven-year struggle of Seattle director Ward Serrill was no less dramatic. Not only is he selling (and possibly adapting) the story to Miramax for feature treatment, his own underdog tale is pretty salable, too.
The Heart of the Game Opens at Guild 45 and Pacific Place, Wed., June 14. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes.
Having already written plenty on Heart for our recent SIFF guide, I am not about to kill the good buzz on this delightfully affirmative little picture. If you haven't already heard, it follows rookie Roosevelt coach Bill Resler, a UW tax professor, through six seasons as he tries to drag his squad out of the cellar. He accomplishes that task in his first year (1998–99), when rookie director Serrill began to tag along with his video camera. Not until the following season would they meet Darnellia Russell, a ninth-grade hoops prodigy with a decidedly diffident attitude toward her garrulous coach and mostly white teammates. Resler's attempts to turn her into a team player, along with her personal travails, make up the rest of the five-year narrative.
For the feature version of Heart, should it be made, I can imagine Robin Williams lobbying hard for the part of Resler, a guy who obviously honed his flamboyant performance style to hold tax students' attention (no easy task, I would think). Whether he's a guy in midlife crisis isn't explored here (Heart also leaves the socioeconomic and racial stuff off camera). What's apparent is that he (a) loves the game of basketball, (b) knows, being the father of three grown daughters, that girls aren't made of gossamer, and (c) has a gift for goofy inspirational team slogans—Pack of Wolves, School of Piranhas, Tropical Storm, etc. (In fact, apart from a Heart feature, those would be pretty good action-movie titles, too.) He's a studied eccentric, a somewhat willful clown who, at home, creates coaching plans scheduled down to half-hour increments on an Excel spreadsheet. He's also not off-puttingly authoritarian (the girls TP his house with a vengeance). He's the kind of guy who seems to have been born with his shirttails untucked. And any parent of a teen will appreciate Resler's challenge with these girls (not just Darnellia). Sure, he can teach them to be physical, to push and shove and wrestle one another for the ball, but how can he get them to listen? Exasperated after one game, he says he told his players to do "ABC," so they naturally opted for "XYZ."
Resler's many monologues partly make up for Russell's reticence. He talks enough for the both of them, and it takes a long time for director Serrill to get her to open up on-camera. (Her performance on the court speaks for itself.) She admits her friends back in the Central District ask her, "Why do you gotta go to this white school?" Maybe she's shy, but she's also proud, a prima donna like many gifted athletes—those with perfect fadeaway jump shots and fingertip rolls don't have to be nice, they know they're valued for winning. During her sophomore season, one teammate says of Russell, "She has a million colleges on her doorstep." There's jealousy on the squad, and rivalry, chiefly during her first season opposite hyperaggressive Devon Crosby-Helms (who loves "the hunt, the kill, the fight!"), who later makes headlines in the Tony Giles private coaching scandal. (Again, no spoilers here.)
Crosby-Helms' story, and those of Resler's other potentially interesting athletes, does become incidental to that of Heart's heroine. Russell's the one who makes headlines, after dropping out of Roosevelt for a time, when the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association refuses to grant her a fifth year of sports eligibility. You'd like to know more about these girls, about the cultural meshing of a squad that gets a little less white during Resler's tenure, just as we'd like to know more about his home life. Heart compensates in part by following Russell home, where we meet her overwhelmingly gregarious and supportive (and female-headed) family. For this reason, when listeners later call in to KIRO radio to ignorantly comment on her court case, neither Serrill nor his narrator, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, needs to explain how wrong they are.
Certainly Hoop Dreams was a deeper film (and longer, not always a good thing), and certainly Heart will add all kinds of additional context and detail whenever it comes out on DVD. A good sports flick needn't be a textbook; we get enough of that, like Resler, elsewhere. Because the movie is Seattle-spawned, all our prior awareness and expectation actually helps fill in what we don't see, what Serrill and his excellent editor, Eric Frith, leave out of this nimble cut. Part of the hometown magic at work here is that, like any athletic contest, there is no script. Serrill couldn't have predicted how seven years of his life would turn out. Nor could Resler foresee how his moonlighting would lead to the limelight. Nor could Russell have imagined how much upheaval she'd experience as a teenager. And all of these lives, all their years in aggregate, are improbably transformed by 32 minutes on a hardwood court.
On one level, it's only a game. On another, it's life and death. Or, as Resler would put it, "Devour the moose!"