Maybe you’ve heard this one before: talented young athlete with an ego problem (“I don’t play for this team, I play for myself”) suffers adversity, grows as a person, learns the importance of putting his team first and, in the last reel, leads that team to ultimate victory. Yes, Forever Strong hews pretty closely to the inspirational-sports-story template, but amid the patterned plotting, mawkish dialogue, obvious character arcing and Hollywood modern aesthetic (rapid cutting, preponderance of close-ups), director Ryan Little and screenwriter David Pliler throw in at least one interesting, if rather disturbing, wrinkle. When Rick Penning (Sean Faris), high-school rugby star, gets arrested for drunk driving and sent to juvie hall, he’s given a chance to reduce his sentence in exchange for playing for the prison ward’s alma mater, the redoubtable Highland Rugby team. As we soon learn, though, Highland isn’t just any sports program, but a total way of life, with Coach Gelwix (a real-life figure here played by Gary Cole) concerned with shaping every aspect of his young player’s lives.
From the strict injunctions against drinking and drugs, to the forced community service to which he subjects his players (they read to sick children in the hospital) to the all-around insistence on honest, upright behavior, there’s something more than a little suspect about a sports program that seeks to systematically dictate moral conduct to teenage boys, even if these models of behavior are largely admirable. But when we consider as well the Maori chants that the team performs before every game, co-opting a “primitive” culture for their own dubious ends, and the repeated evocations of Highland’s glorious past and the “might of tradition” it all adds up to the sense of a vaguely fascist system being uncritically presented for the viewer’s presumptive admiration. It comes as little surprise when the film’s final shot, which finds the entire team stripped to the waist performing a last slow-motion haka in perfect unison, takes us into full-on Leni Riefensthal cult-of-the-body territory.
Although a crime of a lesser magnitude, the film also suffers from Little’s decision to shoot all of the rugby sequences as an incomprehensible blur. Adhering to the belief that action scenes are more thrilling when you can’t tell what the hell is going on, the director gives us just the “highlights”: a bunch of close shots of hard hitting rapidly intercut with a series of blurred non-images with nary a contextualizing long shot in sight. A key tackle may be an exciting part of rugby, but it only has any resonance if we understand its importance within the overall arc of the game. But since most Americans are completely unfamiliar with the sport and the filmmakers can’t be bothered to explain its inner workings—except to repeatedly insist that it’s much tougher than football (the latter sport continually derided as being for “sissies”)—visual context wouldn’t do us much good here anyway. Still, when in the climactic championship game, Little has to keep cutting away to a pair of dull-minded broadcasters to tell us what’s actually happening on the field—as well as to repeat such sports-world platitudes as “It all comes down to who wants it more”—there’s a very definite problem with the film’s on-field staging. This excitement-killing visual incoherence may be far from the greatest sin in Little’s cliché-riddled, ideologically perverse picture, but that fact should serve as ample warning about what exactly it is we’re dealing with here.