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The Heart of the Game
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17 out of 21 people found the following review useful:

Real drama and excitement, both on and off the court

Author: James McNally from Toronto, Canada
28 January 2006

I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. A documentary about high- school basketball that took seven years to make, this film will be compared to Steve James's Hoop Dreams, which is a high compliment indeed. But the films are different.

Serrill began following the girls' basketball team at Seattle's Roosevelt High School when they hired a new coach, tax law professor Bill Resler. Not expected to make much of an impact, Resler proceeded to build a powerhouse in his first year at the job. An eccentric but effective motivator, he chose a different "theme" for his team each year: Pack of Wolves, Pride of Lions, Tropical Storm, and then whipped his players into a frenzy. His motivational skills and his ruthless physical workouts gave the team the confidence and endurance to beat their opponents, even when they were bigger, taller, or more talented.

In his second year at the job, he noticed a young freshman by the name of Darnelia Russell. She stood out for a number of reasons. She had been an outstanding basketball player at her middle school. And she was black. At Roosevelt, in a privileged suburb of Seattle, black students were a minority, unlike at inner-city schools like arch-rival Garfield. In fact, when he tried to recruit her for his team, she rebuffed him at first, admitting to her friends that she wasn't used to being around so many white people. Her presence at Roosevelt was the combined idea of her middle school coach and her mother, who wanted to keep her out of trouble and make sure she got an excellent education.

Her arrival helps Resler build Roosevelt into a city dynasty and a threat at the state championships. But there are ups and downs. And if you wonder why the film took seven years to make, Serrill admitted that he just filmed everything and waited for the story to emerge.

Although the film touches on a few issues of race and class, Serrill says he wanted to make it more about the basketball, and there are generous clips of games, even from major network coverage. Although it give the film much of its energy, I felt myself wishing there were a few more interviews with players, especially Darnelia, who emerges as a central character in the story. We never really get to know her as anything other than a great basketball player.

That being said, it's a documentary about sports, so I'm predisposed to like it. There is real drama and excitement, both on and off the court, and it's also good to see the contribution of people like Bill Resler recognized, a good man who is instilling not just a love of winning, but of playing, and living. As the credits rolled, it was endearing to see that a few of the songs were actually composed and played by Resler, on guitar and vocals, with director Serrill on harmonica.

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14 out of 17 people found the following review useful:


Author: Angelo (the-color-grey) from United States
25 February 2006

First time filmmaker Ward Serrill has really created a wonderfully emotional film. The Heart of the Game, truly has heart and it beats hard throughout the movie. Serrill filmed a girl's basketball team for 7 years; he recorded a total of around 200hrs. The movie turned out to be 102 mins.

As the team competes in games you really start to get into it and begin to root for them in your head. You don't know if they're going to win or lose; when they lose you feel disappointed, when they win you feel relieved. This film just grabs you mentally and it feels like you're watching it live. I felt for the players, felt for the struggle of Darnellia Russell, central character. The film was even humorous at times. The coach, Bill Resler, was a unique character and enjoyable to watch. You really get interested in the narrative and really want to see what will be the out come of this team and it's players. I remember being amazed that it was a documentary; it could have been a storyline for a movie. It's an intense emotional film and it holds and keeps you until the credits run up the screen.

There wasn't much negatives to the film, except like in many films, the movie wasn't as exciting until the middle and then the end. Of course, the ending of the movie wouldn't have been that great unless you've seen the beginning exposition. It was an enjoyable film, so don't let the impression that it's a usual motivational sports documentary, drive you away. The film will be released in wider theater screenings in the summer and the DVD maybe late 2006. I recommend it.

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11 out of 13 people found the following review useful:

Teachers! Required viewing!!

Author: tjackson from Boston. MA
18 May 2006

The Heart of the Game This is one of the great documentary achievements of the year. There have been so many stunning documentary films lately that they are beginning to provide far more revelation and insight into our times than most fictional works. The Heart of the Game is one of the most stunning examples. To review this as a sports film gives it little of the credit it deserves. What these remarkable filmmakers have done is to fashion a "sports genre" movie into a perfect gem of a film about adolescence, class, race, education, competition, gender, inspiration, and the gallant nature of the everyday the heroes and heroines in our midst. Directed by Ward Serrill, edited by Eric Frith and co-produced by Liz Manne, I think it rivals Grizzly Man in its ability to resonate beyond its own expectations and achieve something akin to poetry.

The filmmakers have put together a rousing portrait of two lives - University of Washington tax professor and women's basketball coach Bill Resler and basketball prodigy Darnellia Russell. Together with an ensemble of colorful and committed women athletes and coaches, they overcome a string of obstacles and turns of good and bad fortune that couldn't be scripted into a work of fiction any more powerfully. That the events you see actually unfolded as the film was being shot is remarkably good luck. They have taken the two hundred hours of footage over six years and beautifully fashioned it into a riveting story that will not only inspire but will blow your mind. The audience is evidence. I cannot remember the last time that heard a sophisticated older audience such as attended this screening, actually yell at the screen, comment out loud, sit on the edge of their seats, and applaud DURING the film. I'm not a sports fan at all. I dislike in many ways the tribal mentality of the commercial sporting event. But this film is way beyond a film for sports fans. It ought to be required viewing for any teacher, and for that matter, any high school class. Rather than another tired anecdote from the rarified world of celebrity let's see Bill Resler and Darnellia Russell on Letterman, Leno, Oprah. These are heroes worth hearing from.

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10 out of 12 people found the following review useful:

You Can't Write This Stuff!

Author: whats_the_secret_max from New York
6 June 2006

Had the story in "The Heart of the Game" been a piece of fiction, I wouldn't have believed a word of it, and probably would've cursed Hollywood for continuing to insult the intelligence of moviegoers. As it's a documentary, however, it's quite extraordinary to have captured this particular story in the making. Kudos to the filmmakers for exceptional foresight and/or luck!

Sports movies have become a bit clichéd over time, but I really hope that won't deter anyone from seeing this very moving film. It successfully captures the emotions and spirit of being part of a team with a sense of vitality, humor, and love that I've rarely seen before. Coach Resler in particular is a joy to watch, and will no doubt inspire a generation of coaches to use nature specials when developing game plans.

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6 out of 9 people found the following review useful:

Excellent documentary

Author: myth-debunker from NC, United States
28 April 2006

I was a volunteer at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year, so I got to sneak into a few movies for free. I wasn't too excited about Heart of the Game, but once it started . . . I was hooked.

Everybody in the movie is lovable. Every last one of them, from what I saw.

It's a lot funnier than I was expecting. I was thinking this would be a depressing, boring something-or-other, but it wasn't. It was actually a fairly lighthearted look at the team, up until the ending, which I won't ruin.

It's very funny, too. The interviewees cracked me up; they were just so likable.

Bill Resler (the coach) did a Q&A after the film was over, and I've gotta tell you -- he's a great guy. Hilarious. He's got a great screen presence, too.

I know I'm not qualified to comment on this, as I missed roughly forty minutes because I was assigned to another venue right smack-dab in the middle of this movie, but I loved what I saw, and I'll be the first in line to see this when it comes back around in June.

Highly recommended.

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8 out of 13 people found the following review useful:

2nd Best Sports Movie Ever!

Author: Richard S. Russell (RSRMadison) from United States
23 July 2006

For my money, "Miracle" (2004) is the best sports movie ever. That's mainly because it's subject matter was the greatest moment in sports history — the wildly improbable victory of the United States hockey team over the Soviet Union's in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

My main carp about that film was that it didn't adequately portray to the viewer just how staggeringly great the Soviet team was. Picture a baseball team that featured Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Cy Young, Willie Mays, Nolan Ryan, and a dozen other players of comparable magnitude, all at the peak of their powers, and you'll have some idea of what an overwhelming force the Red Army "amateur" team was. The movie doesn't mention it, but they had made it to the medal round by defeating Japan 16-0, Nederland 17-4, and Poland 8-1, in a sport where typical scores are on the order of 3-2.

The movie may not beat you over the head with the amazingness of the Soviet team, but it did do a terrific job of conveying it subtly. As the game entered the last 2 minutes, with the Americans ahead 4-3, the film shows head coach Herb Brooks discussing with his assistant exactly what to do when the Soviet coach, Viktor Tikhonov, pulls his goalie (a common hockey tactic, a gamble, since it leaves the net open, but it gets an additional attacker on the ice). As the seconds tick away, they keep looking at Tikhonov, who appear frozen, just staring at the game. Finally Brooks remarks, in wonder, "He doesn't know what to do!". And at that point it dawns on you: it's because he's never lost before.

I have many more good things to say about "Miracle" (and I don't even like hockey very much), but here in 2006 I'd like to tout the 2nd best sports movie ever: "The Heart of the Game". And, amazingly enuf, it's a documentary! No famous actors, no huge production budget, no award-winning novel on which to base a screenplay, no opportunity to do retakes if things don't go according to script -- just real life, captured as best as they can by director Ward Serrill and his crew with hand-held cameras over a period of 7 years.

The film follows a girls' basketball team, the Roughriders of Seattle Roosevelt High School, and their quirky coach, Bill Resler, University of Washington tax professor by day and motivator of teenage girls by night. The main subplot for the 2nd half of the film is the struggle of star guard Darnellia Russell (no relation) to gain legal eligibility to play for the team after sitting out a year due to pregnancy. Meanwhile, across town, Garfield High School has a new coach, Joyce Walker, herself a former Seattle high-school star who went on to success and fame at the college, Olympic, and pro levels. The Bulldogs are tall and deep, and their star player, who proudly claims she can take Darnellia to the hoop any time she feels like it, happens to be Darnellia's best friend. And Garfield proposes to take no crap from nobody.

There are about 5 seconds' worth of "X"s and "O"s and not quite enuf action footage for my taste (tho what there is is top-quality camera-work). But most of the film is about Resler's interactions with the girls. (And let there be no mistake, they ARE girls, not women.)

I would say more, but let me leave it at this: if there weren't plenty of evidence that this all actually happened, you'd swear it was fiction. A terrific story, very well told.

And now let me say a kind word for Title 9. This was part of Educational Amendments of 1972 (signed into law by President Richard Nixon), and it prohibited sex discrimination in any education program or activity within an institution receiving any type of federal financial assistance. That notably included athletics.

Here are some statistics of interest:

 • In 1997, women received 41% of medical degrees, compared with 9% in 1972.  • In 1997, women earned 44% of law degrees, compared with 7% in 1972.  • In 1997, 41% of all doctoral degrees to U.S. citizens went to women, compared with 25% in 1977.  • Prior to Title 9, there were 32,000 women on intercollegiate teams, today there are 150,000.  • Prior to Title 9, there were 300,000 girls on competitive high-school teams (or 1 in every 27 girls), now there are 2.78 million (1 in every 2.5).

I am a huge fan of girls' high-school and women's college basketball (which goes a long way toward explaining why I'm so fond of this movie). And the fact of the matter is that there isn't a woman playing basketball at any level today who remembers a time when it wasn't considered a perfectly normal and natural opportunity available to the female half of the human race.

But I do.

Thank you, Title 9!

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3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:

A Wonderful Surprise

Author: pootnanny1964 from United States
3 August 2007

This documentary had me talking about it days after watching it. It had me truly rooting for everyone in the movie. When the movie went off it left me wanting more. Ward Serrill should be nothing but proud of his work. I'm just upset that I hadn't heard of this documentary before.

It's nice to see someone like Bill Resler who isn't a big name in sports take a team and not be concerned about them winning and yet turn the team into a powerhouse. Yet also you end up also liking their rivals and their coach Joyce Walker. Although the movie is about a team you can't help but get attached to Darnellia Russell.

This is a must see documentary.

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3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:

A pack of she-wolves led by a tax lawyer

Author: ( from Portland, Oregon, United States
1 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Engrossing documentary about the recent rise of the girls basketball program at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, under the leadership of an unusually gifted coach, Bill Resler. Resler has been a faculty member in the Business School at the University of Washington for over 20 years, where he teaches tax law. Seven years ago he cold-answered an ad at Roosevelt, which was seeking a new girls basketball coach. The program was in shambles when he took over. Six years later they were state champions.

Resler is a heartfelt, cannily intelligent coach: he's shrewdly intuitive, respectful to the kids, an incredibly tough taskmaster, and a master of motivation. His girls are better conditioned than anybody around because of grueling drills and Resler's highly creative style. To instill comfort with tough body contact, he has the girls pair up, stand back to back, and push each other around. To teach camaraderie and group independence, he established the "inner circle" – the girls gather tightly together, symbolically keeping the coaches and their parents outside.

In their championship season, frictions arise between two star players. It's tearing up the team, and with it, their ability to play well. Resler calls for a team meeting of the inner circle. He and the other coaches stay outside. The girls work things out successfully.

Each year he dreams up a metaphor to focus and heighten aggressive play. One year the team would be a "pack of wolves." Another year, a "pride of lions." The idea was to seek the weakness in an opponent and go for the kill. Commenting on one of these metaphorical tags, one player says to a teammate, "It's so cheesy. So Bill." But she says this with obvious affection.

We follow the fortunes of Resler's teams, which get better and better despite often being smaller than their toughest rivals. Several of his stars are featured, especially Darnellia Russell, a middle school phenom who was induced to go cross town to the predominantly white Roosevelt instead of following her friends and former teammates to Garfield High. It was tough going for Darnellia, who felt odd among all the white kids.

Russell's academic performance was weak, and her pride nearly drove her to quit altogether. But a series of skirmishes with Resler, who was convinced that she was as smart as she was athletically gifted, paid off, and she became the central player in the increasingly successful program, not to mention becoming an honors student.

But events occur that threaten to bring down Ms. Russell, and possibly the team as well. District rules keep her off the team for a year. State rules block her return for a final season the following year, but court challenges give her another chance, and she leads the team to the state title. It's an incredibly dramatic finish to a story that is spellbinding.

The film, director Ward Serrill's first feature, is skillfully photographed and edited. It is also nicely narrated by the talented and suddenly omnipresent Ludicrous (Chris Bridges, the Atlanta rapper who also starred in two of last year's best films, "Crash" and "Hustle & Flow"). Oh, yes, Mr. Resler tells us at the end that next season, his team will be a "school of piranhas." My grade: A- 9/10.

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3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:

Draw Blood!

Author: asc85 from Mercer County, NJ
23 May 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I was fortunate enough to see a preview of this movie before the general release, and quite simply, it's a very good movie. Yes, there are parallels between "Hoop Dreams" and this one, although I liked "The Heart of the Game" better...maybe because it's a manageable 100 minutes long.

Coach Bill Resler is a great character, a great coach, and a great motivator. When one sees great motivators like this, you wonder what they would be doing instead if they were born say 100 years ago.

There are many poignant scenes. I'd say the one that has stuck with me the longest and most vividly is at the end of the second year (I think). When the girl misses the shot to win the game, they show in slow motion that she's face down on the floor sobbing so hard her body is shaking. Coach Resler gets down on the floor with her and whispers something to her, but still respects her space. I'm probably not doing this scene the justice it deserves, but it's extremely sweet and powerful.

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2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:

Lawyers can do good!

Author: guardhi from United States
19 June 2006

Great movie, hard work and proves there are still good people willing to help others regardless of economics, gender, or race.Darnellia has her future ahead of her and it is up to her. Others can only guide the way but she is in charge. Hopefully others will realize not to give up when things turn against you and when given lemons make lemonade out of them. She deserves a break from the autocratic, bureaucratic and stifling attitude of the athletic barons. She overcame her difficulties and others can also. Right is right and it is fortunate that others recognized it and were willing to help. Kudos to the legal profession for doing so and the coach for sticking by her when difficulties arose.

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