Because athletics provide natural metaphors for everyday life, filmmakers are often tempted to call explicit attention to their (fictional or non-fictional) stories’ big, meaningful themes. The Heart of the Game isn’t completely above trading in such dreary obviousness, its narration from rapper-turned-actor Ludacris, who seems as if he’s uncontrollably grinning through every portentous line reading, often hammering home its plot’s dramatic import with simplistic straightforwardness. And yet if not nearly as profound as Hoop Dreams (still the sports documentary gold standard), Ward Serrill’s seven-year record of Seattle’s Roosevelt High girls’ basketball team is shrewd enough to refrain from overselling its considerable racial, socio-economic, and gender undercurrents. Instead, the first-time director allows them to spontaneously bubble to the surface throughout his familiar, but nonetheless heartwarming, real-life tale of on- and off-court triumph.
Coached by a bearded University of Washington tax professor named Bill Resler who crafts each season around an animalistic theme (Pack of Wolves; Pride of Lions) and spouts carnivorous slogans (“Draw blood!”; “Sink your teeth in!”), the Roosevelt Roughriders rise to state prominence partially on the back of Darnellia Russell, an African-American player from the less ritzy side of town who dreams of attending college and playing in the WNBA but finds it difficult adjusting to her white suburban environs. During her five-year tenure at Roosevelt, Darnellia spars with an upper-class Caucasian superstar, quits school after getting pregnant, and goes through a protracted court battle against a Seattle athletic association in order to return to the court for her final season, all while battling rival Garfield High School (which many of her friends attend).
As a vehicle for inspirational uplift, The Heart of the Game uses its copious basketball footage and revealing player interviews to deftly chart Darnellia’s trials and tribulations as well as the squad’s eventual embrace of a selfless, teamwork-first ethos. Yet what ultimately resonates more forcefully is both its overarching depiction of the myriad issues that influence girls’ development (which include not only the color of one’s skin and the size of one’s wallet, but also the insidious specter of sexual abuse and institutional sexism) and—as seen in Resler’s unique coaching methods—the way in which the right balance of encouragement, tough love, and a willingness to grant kids some autonomy can be a compelling game plan for empowerment.