Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: "My All American"

I'm indifferent to most sports but have an abiding affection for quality sports movies. When done right, they can evoke universal, almost mythic themes about humans striving toward a goal and finding the best of themselves through games.

Hoosier filmmaker Angelo Pizzo knows something on the topic, having penned screenplays for two of the most enduring sports movies in recent memory: "Hoosiers" and "Rudy." Now he's stepped behind the camera, too, writing and directing "My All American," about hitherto little-known University of Texas football player Freddie Steinmark.

This film is sure to be remembered among the first two in the annals of iconic sports pictures.

This is the sort of unapologetically humanistic, wholesome moviemaking that Frank Capra ("It Happened One Night") used to practice. Pizzo approaches his subject without an ounce of irony or disdain. It's the sort of film that is corny when done wrong, and tugs insistently at the heart when done right. Here, cast and crew maintain an absolute straightforward tone and hit all the right notes.

Freddie (Finn Wittrock) is a straitlaced kid from Colorado. He's the star of the high school football team, despite being undersized. Freddie is from a religious family that believes that hard work and dedication are everyday expectations, not favors to be rewarded. He falls for a smart girl, Linda (Sarah Bolger), and insists that his whole life lies stretched out before him: scholarship at Notre Dame, drafted by the Denver Broncos, a daughter and three sons... maybe four.

Of course, things don't work out that way. Freddie is ignored by all the football schools owing to his diminutive stature -- until coach Darrell Royal comes calling from Austin. Freddie believes his best friend, Bobby Mitchell (Rett Terrell), is the real target: big, strong, a natural athlete. But Royal (Aaron Eckhart) sees something in the scrappy kid and offers a full scholarship.

The middle section is largely occupied with the on-field play, and Pizzo, with the help of cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, constructs some tight action sequences that are slam-bam thrilling while still seeming realistic. A running back in high school, Freddie transforms himself into a safety and kick returner.

Meanwhile, he befriends fourth-string quarterback James Street -- played well by his real-life son, Juston -- and together they hatch plans to eventually become the respective kings of the offense and defense.

If you've seen the trailers for "My All American," then you know that tragedy befalls Freddie in the midst of a fabulous college career, about which I will speak no more. Suffice it to say that his struggles to establish himself as a football star pale in comparison to his challenges off the field.

Wittrock, with his blue-eyed earnestness and sweet charm, captures the essence of a guy born with gifts and limitations, who made the most of the former and ignored the latter. Eckhart is solid and stern as the wise coach Royal, but I was glad the screenplay also fleshed him out with moments of humor and warmth.

("We fell in love faster than Eggo," is just one of several Royalisms.)

The music by John Paesano swells with strings admirably at just the right moments to enhance the emotions without intruding.

This is golly-gosh-good filmmaking, the sort some will sneer at for its saccharine qualities. But it's the sweet moments that give the bitter parts their bite -- and vice-versa -- just as you can only truly savor victory after becoming intimate with defeat. "My All American" is Angelo Pizzo's threepeat.

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