Stars: Aaron Jakubenko, Wade Briggs, Grant Piro, Mark Mitchell, Anna McGahan, Denise Roberts and Kevin Sorbo.
Writer/director: J.D. Scott
So thoroughly imbued with good will to all men that one immediately feels enveloped in its wide-eyed positivity, Spirit of The Game is a bighearted mash-up of those two intrinsically middle-American movie genres – the faith-based family drama and the rousing underdog sports story.
Even by the heart tugging, tear duct welling standards these earnest narratives set for themselves, you won’t find 97 minutes of more cynicism-free cinema this year. That is an attribute likely to endear Spirit of The Game to the flyover-state core demographic, though it will ensure it remains largely confined to the mall multiplexes and small town single-screens of the heartland’s ‘Bible Belt’, before a long home entertainment after-life.
The ‘Game’ of the title is basketball, while the ‘Spirit’ is that preached by the Church of Latter Day Saints, circa early 1950s. Struggling with self worth after having his heart broken by the gal of his dreams, sensitive Utah hunk Delyle Condie (a buoyant Aaron Jakubenko) turns his back on college ball to go ‘on mission’, spreading the LDS message door-to-door in the foreign world of the Melbourne suburban wilderness. Down under, he finds most Aussies aren’t too fond of door knockers spruiking salvation (still true today), and is denied the occasional court time by rigid Church elder, President Bingham (Oz comedy icon Mark Mitchell, playing against type), who demands all waking hours be spent in the service of The Lord.
As if sent from ‘movie coincidence’ heaven, Condie’s daily rounds lead him to the front door of Australian basketball official Ken Watson (Grant Piro, especially fine), who is having his own existential struggle; namely, how to get the national team in any sort of shape for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The team of Aussies who can’t play are soon being coached by the Yank missionaries who can, ensuring both sporting and spiritual enhancement for the local lads. Some plot twists feel a bit on the nose, but the facts behind the story are undeniable (in one incredible moment, Condie pep talks a teenage Lindsay Gaze, a name that would become legend in the annals of Australian basketball).
When word leaks that the Americans are priming the Aussies, the French team (or “winesippers”, as one character calls them, their thin moustaches and haughty attitude a tad too racially cartoonish) demand some game time with Condie’s ‘Mormon Yankees’. Giving that the climactic confrontation is a ‘friendly’, the stakes are essentially French arrogance against American spirituality, with the pic’s final frozen image leaving no doubt (as if any existed) as to the victor.
Director Darran Scott (adopting the initials ‘J.D.’ for his second feature) displays a sure hand expanding and enhancing the same soulful connection between basketball and faith he explored in his 2015 film, The Playbook. The Melbourne-bred, Wyoming-based filmmaker was born into the role of God’s messenger, having lived his youth in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands the son of a missionary father. Appropriately, Spirit of The Game has the gentle touch of a experienced preacher who knows that the best way to convey a message of salvation is to allow the congregation to feel it dawn upon them. Spirit of The Game not only espouses faith, it exhibits enough of its own – in its actors, its craftspeople and its own storytelling prowess – to engender a warm, admiring response.
Though clearly mounted on a tight budget, tech credits are generally fine, with Australian locales doubling ably for 50’s Utah in early scenes. Only name player of note in the cast is Kevin Sorbo, playing our hero's wisdom spouting, warmhearted father. His Hercules days long gone, Sorbo’s presence will pave the way for the film in key territories, given the actor’s second-wind career change as the go-to guy for faith-based drama (Soul Surfer, 2011; God’s Not Dead, 2014; Joseph and Mary, 2016).