Facing the Giants combines two genres that tend to be formulaic and clichéd: the inspirational sports movie and the inspirational Christian film.
Shot with an all-volunteer cast on a $100,000 budget raised by the members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., it’s a story of faith and football centering on a high school football coach at a Christian school whose six-year losing streak is mirrored by failure in just about every area of his life.
Grant Taylor (director Alex Kendrick, who co-wrote with his brother Stephen) drives an old bomber that always needs a push or a jump to get going. He and his wife Brooke (Shannen Fields) have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child for four years, and visits to fertility specialists confirm that the problem is Grant. Their house needs repairs they can’t afford — and, for some reason, it’s got a stink.
Then there’s coaching. Grant coaches the Shiloh Eagles, the losing team of a spiritually anemic Christian high school. The season starts badly when Grant’s star player transfers to another school. Next come three straight losses, including one to the worst team in the state. Before long, parents are talking behind Grant’s back about giving Grant’s job to one of his assistant coaches. Eventually, even his colleagues aren’t willing to support him.
Because Facing the Giants is an inspirational sports film, we know Grant will somehow get his groove back, turn the team around and get his life on track. Because it is an inspirational Christian film, there will be prayer, Bible reading, revival and learning to trust God and put him first.
It’s Remember the Titans by way of “Davey and
Goliath” — or rather, David and Goliath, since the film ultimately pits its
underdog heroes, including an undersized kicker named David (
Knowing no more about the film than that, you might have a pretty good idea what to expect from Facing the Giants. And, in fact, the film delivers more or less what you expect — though it does so perhaps a bit better than you expect it to.
In particular, the film pulls off the potentially problematic combination of religious and athletic inspiration more often than not, at least on the field. Grant’s coaching blend of motivational speaking and revival preaching in the second half works on both counts, and the film finds some clever ways to connect faith and success without reducing belief to a lucky feather or God to a team mascot.
Among the film’s best moments is a
scene in which Grant blindfolds a promising young player and pushes him farther
than he ever thought he could go. This scene would be a memorable addition in
any of today’s
Unfortunately, the filmmakers haven’t figured out how to realize the critical spiritual turning points off the field — Grant’s spiritual awakening, the revival that comes to Shiloh, the transformation of a sullen player we barely know. These moments of conversion are plot points that just happen with no sense of character development or insight. The filmmakers understand Grant’s helplessness and depression in the first half of the film, and his sense of inner peace and conviction in the second half. But they don’t show how he gets from the one to the other.
The crucial scene in which Grant stands in a lightly wooded field reading his Bible and praying for inspiration just doesn’t work as a dramatic turning point. For one thing, it’s the first time we see Grant praying, so there’s no sense how this experience is in any way new or different for him, or what might have been lacking before.
As a point of contrast, consider how Robert Duvall’s The Apostle used prayer and spiritual experience to reveal and explore the protagonist’s psyche and character. His prayers weren’t just plot points, they were an integral part of who he was and what he was going through. Facing the Giants has no idea how to do this. As competently as it sketches Grant’s descent into depression and failure, the moment he cracks a Bible and starts praying the movie feels like an evangelization tool rather than a dramatic story.
This overtly evangelistic content generated some controversy when the studio reported that the Motion Picture Association of America had given the film a PG rating in part for its “proselytizing.” The MPAA has since denied this — but not before receiving thousands of letters of protest.
The controversy went all the way to Capitol Hill. In a letter to MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., complained about “the disquieting possibility that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence.”
For what it’s worth, the controversy seemed half-baked. The PG rating hardly implies stiffer treatment of Christian themes than “gratuitous sex and mindless violence” — hardly staples of G-rated entertainment! The PG rating isn’t a moral censure, merely a note to parents that the content may call for parental guidance. Which it does.
Though its faults are inescapable — and did we really need another football movie? — Facing the Giants is far from a disaster or an embarrassment. It’s fitfully entertaining on its own terms, and scene for scene probably offers more than, say, Gridiron Gang.
Production was overseen by a
Among fans of its two genres, especially in the Bible Belt, Facing the Giants will doubtless find an audience. To reach a broader swath of the general public, though, the filmmakers will have to scrap their playbook and learn a whole new set of rules.
Content advisory: Sports roughness; discussion of infertility (including a reference to in vitro fertilization); much evangelical Protestant/Fundamentalist religiosity. Might be okay for kids.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.