Taking a Knee has always meant something special in sports, and in sports movies. As a British kid watching American films about inspiring sporting events, legendary teams or players, when the gruff but lovable coach told his exhausted players to ‘take a knee’, it meant something powerful and inspirational was about to happen.
Now, as we have seen over the last few years, Taking a Knee has become something else. And it is powerful and inspirational in a very, very different way.
I don’t know what that means, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot, lately. That moment in movies has always been the turning point when things seem impossible, always fires up the team to claim that final and most vital victory.
That means something. It has to, right?
This weekend we have all been delighted, amused but most importantly, inspired by the bravery of athletes who are as sick and tired as the rest of us. Colin Kaepernick was once a lonely but powerful figure, kneeling during a song and before a flag for reasons I really shouldn’t have to explain to anyone. Now, he’s the face of a movement that is growing with, honestly, nearly every passing hour. Kneeling athletes, brilliantly ferocious twitter exchanges and powerful discourse have left at least this author feeling pretty damned good about the world right now. Are things magically better? Not in the slightest. Is it finally starting to feel, after eight breathless months of endless stress, that maybe we’ve found our feet and are weathering the storm? For me, it’s getting there.
So, to honour the brave athletes standing up and making themselves heard, welcome to your Weekend Binge Watch; Sportsball!
Sports movies are a unique phenomena in cinema. Being about sports in any way makes your film a sports movie, leaving us with a genre that includes films about basketball-playing dogs, ghosts and angels leading teams to victories, or driving otherwise sensible men to build baseball fields. We can also include character studies about the lives of players, and thrillers about obsessive fans. And, of course, just the good old-fashioned success stories, where the underdog team claws its way to victory and respect, all while healing the various psychic wounds key players are carrying.
What I’m saying is, there is something for everyone in sports movies. I tend to favour the ones that go a little further than the underdogs just finding their way to victory. My list reflects, and what I think is important to remember now, stories about those who haven’t found their place, but do within a team. And with that place, they find strength and power, especially if it’s something society doesn’t always care if you’re good at. And so, to our list;
It’s easy for a lot of people to write Seann William Scott off. He’s undeniably funny, but his fearlessness in looking like a big dummy on camera seemed to embed within audiences that he’s just a bit of a big goofball — and nothing much more. A solid comic staple in your zany and/or gross-out comedy for teens and young adults; still, no one you would expect to carry an actual story.
Perhaps that’s why Goon (2011) didn’t make the box office splash it absolutely should have. Perhaps people saw Scott in the lead and wrote it off. That’s their failing.
Goon (based roughly on the true story of Doug Smith) follows Scott as Doug Glatt, a golden hearted giant who isn’t really sure of his place in life. His family, including his brother, are highly intelligent and accomplished academics. Doug, a sweet and simple man, has never developed their same level of academic prowess. He finds work because of his size and strength, and he’s not sure if that is who he is, or who he just has to be.
When protecting his vulgar, mouthy friend Pat (an electric and delightfully hyperactive Jay Baruchel, who also co-wrote the film) from a violent and homophobic hockey player, Dougie’s sheer physical prowess catches the attention of the minor league hockey coach and within days, Dougie is hired as the new Enforcer for his team.
Dougie is given a specific job on the team, to protect hotshot prospect Xavier Laflamme (Marc-André Grondin). The wildly gifted young player has been bounced down to the minors after recovering from a nearly devastating head injury , a massive concussion delivered by old school enforcer, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber at his grizzled best), who at once becomes Dougie’s prime professional rival.
Laflamme is arrogant and brash but his injury has left him terrified of being hurt again, rendering him close to useless out on the ice, as he flinches whenever anyone comes near him. But, with Dougie watching his back, Laflamme starts to bounce back.
Given someone weaker to take care of gives Dougie a purpose he’s never known, and a confidence that makes him shine. Of course, it’s not an easy journey and of course, most of the common genre tropes are present; Dougie has to work hard to earn the respect and adoration of his teammates, his parents disagree with his choice of career, and his potential love interest (indie favourite Alison Pill) comes with her own painful baggage and self doubts. In a film that is actually a fairly realistic and gritty comedy, these tropes are not dull or overwrought. They’re given doses of grounding realism that create far more complex human motivations behind the tension, and across the board solid performances keep the scenes dealing with these issues feeling vital and fresh.
Dougie as a character is one of the easiest people to like ever committed to film. He’s just a simple guy, with a clear sense of right and wrong, and he happens to be great at punching people. He’s nearly impossible to insult and for the most part only lashes out in self-defence or, once he joins the team, because it’s his literal job. He never enjoys or gets off on the violence, but once he accepts that he can use it to help people, he comes to finally like himself. The scene where he explains this to his parents is one of Scott’s best.
Goon can be found to watch online and the sequel is out now.
Fair warning. If you watch this film you will want to take up roller derby. I did. I take no responsibility if you’re not good on skates.
Directed by Drew Barrymore and Starring Ellen Page, fresh off the back of her hard earned Juno accolades and presentation to society as both powerfully relatable and a pseduo outcast of her own making, Whip It( 2009) is a must for strong girls who haven’t yet found their place.
Bliss Cavender (Page) is a punk and indie music-loving misfit in a very polite and proper Texan town. Her overly controlling mother Brooke (the always utterly spectacular Marcia Gay Harden) literally decides when Bliss gets to wear her contact lenses over her glasses, and pushes her daughter into vapid beauty pageants that are slowly but surely killing Bliss’s soul. One day, almost entirely by accident, Bliss is exposed to the thrilling and brutal and physical all-female sport of Roller Derby.
Lesson time; Roller Derby is a full-contact track sport, played on quad roller skates. Each team’s purpose is to score points on one another by having and helping their fastest player, the Jammer, lap the track. Between the Jammer and her goal are Blockers. These powerful women are there to … well, block the opposing Jammer, or indeed, clear a path for their own Jammer to get through.
Bliss sneaks out and tries out for the team, landing a key position as a Jammer and along with it, gaining the life she never knew she was missing. She earns a larger group of friends who offer boundless support, and are good enough to be real if they think Bliss needs to hear it; her confidence and personality flourish. Bliss, an outcast, finally has a place in the world.
Like Goon, the film relies on a few tropes and Bliss has to learn to balance her new friendships with her old ones, learn hard lessons about douchey boys and of course, have an eventual showdown with her oppressive mother. Like Goon, Whip It manages to keep this feeling real, and never tired or played out. Bliss even spends a period semi-homeless after crashing on a friend’s couch to get away from her mother.
Whip It is a wonderful film for the different ways it portrays powerful women. No one is demonised, not even Bliss’s mother; while Bliss grows and blossoms under her new friends, the most vital parts of her personality, the ones that drive her to action in the first place, come entirely organically from her mother. And for all she’s the hero, Bliss is far from perfect. She grows as an entire person during the course of the story, and not just because she learns to like herself more.
And this is just me, but I love Whip It for how physical it is. I’m not talking action movie physical (though it’s honestly so great to see Scarlett Johansson keep jumping on bad guys to elbow them in the skull); I’m talking about ordinary women just not acting or being treated like we’re made of glass — women who are fearlessly crashing into each other and risking injury because truly, Derby is just that fun.
Whip It will leave you googling quad skate prices and local Derby leagues, and can be found to watch online.
Judging whether or not to like a stranger based on what movies they have or haven’t seen might be strange way to live but … it’s how I do. If you haven’t seen The Sandlot … well, see it. See it at once. Or, I won’t trust you.
The Sandlot (1993), which follows a group of misfit kids over the course of one exciting summer in the 1960s, is a perfect slice of American nostalgia.
Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) is the new kid in town at the start of the summer vacation, and he’s looking for friends. Though not naturally sporty, he’s drawn to a group of misfit kids who play baseball on a nearby sandlot every single day of the summer.
The raucous boys are initially hostile, but when Scotty’s stepdad helps him get better at throwing and catching, Scotty is accepted by his new friends and earns a permanent spot on the team. The film follows the boys’ carefree summer adventures, from chewing themselves sick on tobacco to harassing local girls, to the serene perfection of the July 4th night game.
The summer ultimately boils down to their mission against … The Beast.
Part local legend, part badly socialised English Mastiff, The Beast is a junkyard dog who lives in the plot directly beside the titular sandlot. Local legend claims The Beast has eaten any intruder foolish enough to wander into his owner’s yard, and the fear of him is so complete that even to the baseball-obsessed sandlot kids, any ball knocked into The Beast’s territory is just automatically written off.
That is, until Scotty brings a signed Babe Ruth ball to the lot and it’s knocked over the fence. Once they learn the history of the ball, the sandlot kids are driven to retrieve it, at any cost. What follows is a funny, lighthearted story that can be enjoyed as much by kids as it can by adults.
The Sandlot is not an entirely perfect movie, but it can feel that way when the mood is right. The kids who star are real and funny, the sense of childhood freedom is captured perfectly, and the ending is a quiet but powerful comment on the history and legacy of a sport that captures the heart of so many people
The Sandlot can be found to watch online.