FACING THE GIANTS
Christian Film, 2006 - 3 Stars
Low Production Values Don’t Hurt Strong Script... Too Much
Alex Kendrick wrote, directed and starred in this story of a high school coach and his losing football team, the Shiloh Eagles, overcoming adversity to become state champions of Virginia - with God’s help. A very strong script and a non-preachy tone overcome the deficits of a small budget, such as low production values and amateur actors. It’s hard to believe that a Baptist church in Georgia produced this film, or that its associate pastor of media conceived, wrote, directed and starred in it, but they did - which goes to show that faith and a strong vision, as well as a good story, can overcome anything. Even though weak cinematography and music, as well as a cast of all volunteer actors, threaten to pull the film down, it not only manages to stay afloat, but bursts through all barriers to leave the audience emotionally satisfied in the end. Like the characters in Facing The Giants, the cast and crew end up believing that “With God, all things are possible.”
Two themes are intertwined: Coach Grant Taylor’s inability to produce a winning football team, and his inability to produce a child. These two failures, as well as the everyday disappointments of life, devastate him and his wife. The scene when the couple break down in tears over the results they’ve been getting is one of the strongest in the film. But they don’t get angry or bitter. Instead, Grant goes to God and lays his problems before Him. And God hears and answers. Grant teaches his football team that we honor God, not just when we win, but when we lose as well. He also works with the boys to honor their parents, as well as obeying God’s other commands. He teaches them to always do their best, and leave the results to God. This change in attitude carries the boys to a new level of living, and the state championship.
There is an interesting scene, right before the state playoffs, in which Mark Richt, head coach for the University of Georgia, makes a cameo appearance to wish Coach Taylor well, having apparently been his former coach. Visually, Richt contrasts sharply with the rest of the film because he is poised, polished and professional, as well as very charismatic and photogenic. He causes one to wonder what the rest of the film would have been like had the producers had the budget and knowledge to hire a more professional cast and crew - say along the lines of Remember The Titans. Perhaps, instead of Facing The Giants being a phenomenal little film, it could have been a great film. We can only wonder. But maybe it is all that it was supposed to be: inspiration for now, and inspiration for greater things to come.
Here are some observations on the various aspects of Facing The Giants.
STORY & SCRIPT
This is yet another example of how story & script are everything; and, in the hands of a talented director, can virtually carry a film when almost all else fails. In spite of various other weaknesses, Facing The Giants has a solid story to tell, and tells it well, script-wise, even to the point of loading the dialogue with scripture and Christian doctrine without sounding preachy. That in itself is an art. It also offers enough humor to keep the audience entertained, as a heart-wrenching plot develops along two lines: Coach Grant's impotence, both as a coach and as a potential father. So we get a good look at him both publicly and personally.
Selecting high school football as the context for our story was inspired, both economically and logistically: it's an easy subject to film, as well as readily available. It's also a subject most people can get emotionally involved in. And it doesn't have to look too good to be believable: there is no glamour associated with high school football. The only tricky part are the action shots during the games; but even those are relatively easy compared to most other sports.
This is Alex Kendrick's second film. His first was Flywheel, a 2003 TV movie. The mark of a truly talented director is his ability to take what he's given and make something out of it. Kendrick does that. He came up with the story, and, with the help of his brother Stephen, wrote a compelling script. Next all he needed was an excellent cast and crew. But he didn't have that. Because of an extremely modest budget, he had to use volunteer actors and an inexpensive crew. But the resulting film is almost as compelling as the script, which is witness to Kendrick's ability as a director. Think of what he could have done with a generous budget and professional cast and crew.
One of the weaknesses of this film is the cinematography. Granted, the footage of the football games is well-done, suggesting that Kendrick believed that was most important, and therefore hired the best sports film crew he could afford. But the rest of the film, especially the indoor scenes, suffers because of lack of expertise. Most of the indoor shots are poorly lit and poorly conceived. The worst example is that of the two announcers in the press box, a straight-on shot that is boring in every respect; when it could have been one of the more colorful, interesting shots. One of the best shots is the long one of the early morning pasture in which the coach goes to be alone with God.
Music is only memorable when it is either exceptionally good, or when it is exceptionally bad. The music for Facing The Giants is somewhere in between, meaning, it is entirely forgettable. Just about the only music I remember is the electronic music that played under during the football game sequences, which was bad, and always a mistake. Unless electronic music is done distinctively, like the group Vangelis does it, it should be avoided at all costs. The only other piece I vaguely remember is the vocal number that was done during the doctor's office visit, when Coach Taylor's wife, Brooke, was checking to see if she might be pregnant. I think it stood out because it actually sounded like it involved real instruments - at least the voice was real.
The cast was made up of volunteer actors, including the pastor of the Baptist church that produced the film, who played the opposing coach in the state play-offs. While amateur actors don't always come across as amateur, most of these did. Grant Taylor had his moments. But when Mark Richt, head football coach for the University of Georgia, made his cameo appearance toward the end of the film, it was like a light had suddenly been turned on. Because the story was so engrossing, we had perhaps forgotten we were watching amateurs. But Richt was so polished and professional, it showed the others in a poor light. I sat there thinking that he should have been the star. He looked like a star - Kendrick did not. And he was believable - many of the actors were not. As a matter of fact, very few members of the cast seemed like actor material. They just weren't interesting enough. Besides their ability to pull off a part, actors should always be selected based on their looks: either they are interesting-looking, or they are attractive. Nobody wants to sit for two hours looking at uninteresting, unattractive people. And the leads should always be the most attractive of the actors, unless there is a reason for their not being so - like in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
This film begs for an art director. There is a way to make a plain, middle class home look interesting. There is a way to make a plain, ordinary high school look attractive, visually. There is a way to coordinate color and shape to make every shot appealing. That is one of the big things lacking in this film: an artistic vision. One of my biggest complaints is the wardrobe. Not one of Coach Taylor's outfits fit him - they were all way too big, which made him look like an out-of-shape slob. Now, that could have been used to make a statement on his impotence, had his wardrobe changed with his circumstances. If, toward the end of the film, his clothes had fit and he had looked more in shape, more in control, that could have been used as a dramatic element. But he looked exactly the same at the end of the film. I thought Kendrick's appearance worked against his character, which a professional actor would not have allowed. A pro not only wants to act a part, but he wants to look it as well. Next to Coach Richt he looked like a loser, rather than the winner he was at that moment in the film. The whole film could have been brought up to another level if someone had been art directing, and if a pro had been photographing it. The look of a film says as much about what is happening in a scene as the words being spoken.
I understand that it's hard for a young director to think of everything. There are very few first time masterpieces, like Citizen Kane. The best that most directors hope for is that their first couple of films will be enough to gain the attention of enough of the industry that they can continue to get more and more talented casts and crews, as well as bigger and bigger investors, in order to make better and better films. As long as a director keeps writing scripts like this one, and as long as he continues to direct like this, he can do that. I think Alex Kendrick and those associated with him will continue to give us films worth watching, and that he will overcome the weaknesses that a limited budget imposed on this one.
Waitsel Smith, October 22, 2006
Text © 2006 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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