Rated PG-13 for some suggestive references, brief teen drinking, smoking, language, and violence
Some strong and crude language
Reference to alcoholic parent, alcoholic character, teen drinking
WWI battle flashbacks and reference to sad deaths, brutal corporal punishment, beatings, injuries, some graphic images
Date Released to Theaters:
June 18, 2021
In the Texas dust bowl of the Depression era, the most under- of underdog football teams captured the hearts of people across the state, across the country, and even one fan in the White House. For them, the team of teenagers from a Fort Worth orphanage was a symbol of hope and courage. Oh, and along the way, they came up with an innovation that transformed the game of football.
Teachers Rusty Russell (a subdued but solid Luke Wilson) and his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) arrive at the Masonic Home and School for orphans. They are committed and admittedly optimistic about giving the residents hope, opportunity, and a sense of belonging. That includes setting up a football team, even though the boys are smaller than the other players in the league, have no practice field or equipment, and literally have never held a football before. As we learn in brief flashbacks over the course of the film, Rusty is suffering from PTSD due to his experiences in WWI, including the death of the brother he promised to protect.
At he Masonic Home, there is a kind-hearted doctor with an alcohol dependency (Martin Sheen) and a brutal, angry man named Frank (Wayne Knight), who sees the boys only as free labor for his print shop. Frank beats the boys for the slightest infraction and considers every moment away from the shop for school or football, as stealing from him. He, by the way, is stealing from them, skimming money from the shop.
Rusty and Doc start working with the boys. And the boys start winning games. When the other teams find they cannot beat them on the field, some of them start trying to beat them in other ways. Rusty has to make up for the smaller size of his players with a new strategy called the spread defense that would change the game of football at the most fundamental level.
Cinematographer David McFarland uses muted tones to evoke the era, a nod to the sepia images we associate with the era but also providing a context of dust, depression, and deprivation. Even though there are moments of intense emotion and struggle, Roberts maintains a quiet, deliberate tone that adds dignity to the storytelling, though it slows sections of the film, particularly when characters and incidents and issues start to pile up in a distracting manner. Sheen gives some wry sweetness to a thinly conceived role that balances Wilson’s subtle decency. The real triumph of the story is not in the goals scored but in the way that dedication, attention, and a good example can transform not just those who are inspired directly, but those who see in them possibilities not previously imagined.
Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, crude sexual references, alcohol abuse, scenes of combat, and injuries with some graphic images.
Family discussion: Why did Rusty think football was so important for the boys? How do we treat parentless children differently now?
If you like this, try: “Remember the Titans” and the book that inspired this film.
Drinking, scenes in pub, alcoholic portrayed as cute and funny
Sad death of a parent, off-screen serious injury of a horse
Date Released to Theaters:
May 21, 2021
“Dream Horse” is a fact-based underdog, or maybe under-horse story about an improbable equine champion. But the real thoroughbred in the movie is the endlessly talented Toni Collette, who plays Jan Vokes, a cashier at a big box store in Wales, who dreams of breeding a racehorse. This is a solidly constructed feel good movie, with performances and details that make it better than it needs to be.
Even those who do not know the story and have not seen the popular documentary, “Dark Horse,” about the real story, have a pretty good idea of where this is going. There will be an impossible dream, some early signs of success, setbacks, struggles, and a triumphant conclusion, with glimpses of the real people (and horse) in the final credits. Those credits, by the way, are one of the film’s highlights; don’t miss them, as the actors and the Welsh villagers they portray sing a classic song by Wales’ favorite son Tom Jones together.
It is Collette who helps to make the story feel fresh and authentic, along with the staging of the race scenes by Welsh director Euros Lyn, so exciting we lean forward in our seats, as though it will help our favorite be first over the finish line. She is called upon in the film to sit in various owners’ seats at various racetracks and make each expression of worry, excitement, fear, and ecstatic joy look different and real and she, well, crosses the finish line ahead of the pack every time.
Jan feels stuck as the film begins. Her husband, Brian (Owen Teale) snores at night and bores in the daytime, watching reality television shows about veterinary procedures and ignoring Jan except when absent-mindedly asking what’s for tea. She has two jobs, cashier at the store and barmaid at the pub. When she isn’t being ignored by Brian, she is caring for her elderly parents. There is nothing to make her feel a sense of hope or purpose.
And then she overhears a customer at the bar talk about his time as part owner of a racehorse. He is Howard (Damian Lewis), an accountant who nearly went broke when the syndicate failed. Jan realizes that if she can just get everyone to give ten pounds a week, she can breed a racehorse by buying a retired mare and paying the stud fee to get her pregnant. A lovably quirky group of people from the village and a couple of Howard’s friends agree to join. And they agree it isn’t for the money or for the craic (Celtic term for fun, but for the hwyl (pronounced hoyle, and a Welsh term meaning more than fun, fun plus enthusiasm, spirit, and purpose). The film’s wisest choice is making it clear that the miracle is not the horse. It is the chance to believe in something and to be part of a community.
The foal is born, but the mare dies. In some other versions of the story we might spend time on how the syndicate members care for the motherless colt, named Dream Alliance, but in this one we skip ahead to bringing him to the training facility of the country’s top racehorse trainers, played by Nicholas Farrell (“Chariots of Fire”). No training montage here. We skip right from his initial no to, the “wait a minute, that horse is really fast” to, well, being off to the races.
That leaves perhaps too much time with the overly cutesy townsfolk. I think we are past the time when the town drunk is supposed to be funny or adorable. And the resolution of Howard’s conflict with his wife, who is understandably worried about a repeat of his past losses, is improbably easy. But then there is another chance to hold our breath at the races, and to cheer for Dream Alliance, for dreams, and the alliances that make them come true.
Parents should know that this film includes some potty humor, scenes in a bar, a town drunk whose alcoholism is played for humor, a sad death, and a serious injury of an animal.
Family discussion: What dream would make a difference in your community? Why was it so difficult for Jan’s father to tell her he was proud of her? How did money change the way the group made decisions? What would you do just for the “hwyl?”
If you like this, try: “Dreamer” (also inspired by a true story), “Phar Lap,” and “The Black Stallion”
Chicago is my home town, so I have a soft spot for Brian’s Song, one of the cryingist movies of all time, the true story of Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, with Billy Dee Williams and James Caan.
Or you could try The Game Plan, featuring real-life former college football player Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson in a more family-friendly story about a selfish quarterback who discovers he has a ballet-loving daughter:
I’m a big fan of the silly but fun Keanu Reeves movie, The Replacements, with Gene Hackman as the coach, a kind of Dirty Dozen of football. Catch “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau on the team.
You can see Favreau in another crying football movie based on a true story, Rudy.
The Express is the true story of the first Black winner of the Heisman trophy, Ernie Davis.
Athletic competition is endlessly fascinating, not just because of the talent and skill but because no one becomes a champion without character and values: determination, courage, and the kind of teamwork that requires respect and responsibility. And because we love stories about underdogs who never give up and come from behind. Basketball superstar Steph Curry understands that, and so he is the producer of a superb new documentary series on Quibi called “Benedict Men,” the story of a small Catholic high school in New Jersey run by Bendictine monks, most of the students Black and from families struggling financially, with a basketball team that is consistently the state champion.
I spoke to Father Edwin Leahy about the school, the basketball program, and the documentary.
What defines the Benedictines? What makes them different from the Jesuits and other Catholic orders that run schools?
The Jesuits were created by St. Ignatius to be at the disposal of the holy father, the pope, to go wherever they needed to be in the world to evangelize. We on the other hand are the oldest order in the church because St. Benedict existed/lived in 480 or 530 more or less 540. The fundamental difference is that we take a vow of stability so we are vowed to a place. We have other vows as well but that is the distinguishing mark, that we don’t get moved around. We live in the same place for our lives until they carry us out of the church as they say in Spanish in pajamas of wood, in a box. We’re here to stay and that’s our great strength, it’s also our great weakness because if we don’t get vocations to come to our house there’s a problem because there’s no place else you transfer people in from.
So you’ve been at St. Benedicts for a long time.
I went to school here as a high school boy. My father wanted me to go to an all-boys school so I applied here. I got rejected and my father was not to be put off, he talked to the pastor of our church and the pastor interceded and I got in provisionally. The joke turned out to be some of the people who rejected me wound up working for me.
When I got here I loved it; I could take you to the place in the building where I stood the first and second day I was here. I was a 13-year-old at the time and I knew I was home; I have no idea why but I knew I was home and I belonged here and here we are fifty something years later.
I entered the monastery community here in 1965, professed vows in ‘66, took solemn vows in ‘69, was ordained a priest in ‘72. I’ve been living here in Newark at the abbey at St. Benedict’s Prep since 1969.
The school closed in 1972 after 104 years because of racism and we lost 14 men from our monastery; they went to another place and we were stuck with trying to live a community life with no common work. So, we decided we would try to do something in education which is what we had always done and what the city desperately needed. I was dumb enough to say I would try to do it in 1972 and I’ve been doing it ever since. For 48 years I’ve been doing this and loving it.
We learn in the film that your school motto is “What hurts my brother hurts me.” How does that apply in the competitive world of sports?
It applies in every level of our operations here. It is the ability to understand the other’s struggle and the other’s sufferings. It’s hard to create community and it’s hard to create teams if you can’t understand each other’s reality and each other’s sufferings.
You see in the series it gets rough at the end because of difficulties in giving up “what I want” for “what we need.” That’s the nature of community because if you live in community you’ve got to give up what you want for what the community needs; not easy to do and none of us can do it consistently.
We have a tendency that we do it and then we slip, then we do it; that’s basically our life. Our Father Albert describes the life in the monastery this way. When people ask him what do monks do, he says, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up; we fall down and we get up,” and that’s life basically. So, the hope is there are more of us on our feet than there are on the ground at a given time, and then we can help people up. That’s it. That’s the secret and that’s what we try to do in this place in school all the time. That’s what you have to do on a team. If you can’t do that it’s hard to be a success.
I was surprised to see how many decisions at the school are made by the students. You give them a lot of leeway and a lot of power.
Our job here as adults is to prevent them from making decisions that will either physically hurt them or long-term hurt them. We’re not going to let kids make decisions because they can’t see 10 or 15 years from now that are going to damage them. So anything short of that, they decide it.
Remember, this place has to be re-created every year. In a company the CEO usually has the job for several years but here the CEO changes every year because there’s a senior year group leader who runs the place and he graduates and leaves. Well it’s early in the year one year and they decided that kids had worked really, really hard and they were going to have only half a day at school and at 12:30 they were going to be over. But we go from kindergarten to grade 12.
They tell me this and I said, “That’s a bad idea,” and they said “No, no, no we’re going to do it, we want to do it, we think it’s a good idea.” I said “I think you’re making a bad mistake, here’s why. First of all, you can’t let the little kids out without parents’ permission.” They said, “They’re going to stay all day.” “Oh, okay so that’s fair the little kids are going to go all day with the older kids having a half day; how is that fair?” “Well, we’ll figure out another way to do something for them.”
So, I said, “If something goes wrong when the middle school kids get out, who’s going to explain it to the parents?” I thought I got them to back off but they sent an email saying that school was going to be over at 12:30. I had about 15 minutes to pull this thing back. They pulled it off. They got in touch with faculty members and called the whole thing off and then we found another day down the road when we could give them the whole day off and not half a day and inform parents and all that but it took hours of discussion.
If they’re going to make it without adult advice they had damn well better be right because no parent is going to go after the 18 year old senior group leader; they’re going to come after me.
The rule is: do not do for kids what kids can do for themselves. So, here’s another example. 152 years we’re an all-boys school, last year two Catholic schools announced they were closing. One was a girl’s academy, the other was a co-ed school.
The girls unbeknownst to me came over here and they had a meeting in the boardroom and they decided that they were going to have a girls division here at St. Benedicts. I’m standing at dismissal time outside my office, outside the trophy room which is where everybody walks by; it’s like Times Square, everybody goes by there to go out the door. So, I’m standing there and one of the leaders, one of the guys, comes out and he says, “You got to come to this meeting.” I said, “What meeting?” “Oh there’s a meeting in the boardroom.” “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a meeting.” “Just come in.”
They grabbed me the arm and dragged me into the meeting, I sit down and it becomes obvious to me in about two seconds that the meeting is just about over. I wasn’t being called in to participate in any decisions; I was being called in to be told what was going to happen and that I had to have girls division. I said, “We can’t have a girls division. (1) we’ve never had girls and (2) we don’t have any space.” “Well, let’s figure it out.” I put every roadblock up in the world that I could think of and nothing; they ignored me, none, zero, none of them worked. I couldn’t stop them and to make a long story short, we now have a girl’s division here; created completely by the girls and our guys. I had very little to do with it; it’s amazing.
It’s been a great blessing to have the girls here. It was all created by the kids; they did the whole thing.
What do you want people to learn from watching this series?
I want them to better understand the struggles and the suffering of not just basketball players (these kids happen to be basketball players) but the struggles and sufferings of our brothers and sisters of color in urban America. To have to put all your energy, your effort, as a 16 or 17-year-old as our student C.J. Wilcher said, “to try to help my family,” is not right; it’s just not right.
To have people living in poverty and some living in misery in the midst of the first world is a disgrace to the country. So, I hope people get a sense of the sufferings of kids and the anxiety that some have to live with. Even some parents fall into this. They begin to treat their kids as assets instead of like their children and that’s a disaster. There are a million people in the world that could be their kid’s basketball coach or could be his agent, but there is only one person in the world that can be his mother and only one person in the world that
Those feeling most sharply the loss of NCAA March Madness this year will be able to get some of what they miss with “Jump Shot,” a documentary produced by one of the all-time NBA greats, Steph Curry, about the man he considers one of his most significant forbears, the late Kenny Sailors, who invented the jump shot. Yes, someone invented the jump shot, and almost as remarkable as trying to imagine basketball without jump shots, this documentary will satisfy those who don’t know who Steph Curry is as well as those who can recite the stats from his career going back to his college days at Davidson. Kenny Sailors invented the jump shot when he was a teenager. But then he went on to a life well-lived, in which the jump shot and basketball were only one part. And to pay tribute to his example, a portion of every payment for watching the film will go to helping provide food to people in need as a result of COVID-19.
People of reliable authority have said that if they had to pick the one whose prototypical jump shot was the purest, whose mechanics set in motion a scoring technique that thrilled fans and helped transform a two-handed, flat-footed, essentially earthbound affair into the vertical game it is today — giving rise, quite literally, to marksmen like Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — it would be Sailors.
Sailors grew up in a Wyoming small town. He loved basketball and played one-on-one with his big brother every day. His brother was big, 6’5″. Sailors was only 5’7″. He couldn’t get past his big brother. So, he began to jump. And as someone once said in a movie, he had the hang time of a helium balloon.
The documentary has archival footage and contemporary comments from athletes, including Curry and Kevin Durant, sports journalists, and Sailors’ family and friends. Sailors took his college team to a national championship as he and all of the other players knew they would not be continuing to play basketball; they were all going into the military to fight in WWII. Sailors became a captain in the Marines, and then, after the war, played professional basketball long enough to qualify for a pension. And then, for his wife’s health, they moved to rural Alaska, where he coached high school students in every sport they offered plus girls’ basketball, which was not offered until he insisted on it.
It is a touchng love story, and it is a story of a life of grace, integrity, and service, with a quality we do not see very often, decency. Sailors’ quiet humility and selfless dedication are even more inspiring than his innovations in basketball.
Parents should know the movie has references to illness and aging and a sad death.
Family discussion: What was most important to Kenny Sailors? What would you like to change about sports?
If you like this, try: “Dogtown and Z-Boys” about some teenagers who also transformed their sport