The Heart of the Game

Bill Resler and Darnellia Russell discuss the finer points of tax law.

Bill Resler and Darnellia Russell discuss the finer points of tax law.

Rated 4.0

Ward Serrill’s documentary The Heart of the Game isn’t a great movie—not literally great, that is. I say this not to put it down, but only to emphasize that the movie is something that may be even rarer: a compelling real-life story that few people outside Seattle ever would have heard about, except that it took place while someone was there with a video camera. And the guy with the camera—Ward Serrill—knew what he was doing, even though he’d never made a movie before.

Of course, Serrill was in no hurry; he spent seven years filming the dual careers of a man named Bill Resler. He doesn’t tell us why—but then Serrill has the humility to realize that the movie isn’t about him. Maybe his interest was piqued by Resler, a professor of tax law at the University of Washington Business School who decided one day to moonlight as the girls’ basketball coach at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School.

Resler had never coached athletics before, but his grown daughters had been high-school athletes, and he’d always followed their teams. His coaching philosophy was deceptively simple: full-court press, all the time, and he encouraged his players to think of themselves as predators—one season a wolf pack and another season a pride of lions. In short order, he turned the Roosevelt Rough Riders into winners, leading them into contention in the state finals.

The story gets better. One day into Resler’s gym walked Darnellia Russell, a prodigiously talented African-American girl whose mother enrolled her at the predominantly white Roosevelt rather than the closer-to-home Garfield High. Russell’s mom felt her daughter would get a better education at Roosevelt, even though most of her friends went to Garfield. Not only that, but Garfield and Roosevelt have carried on a cross-town rivalry for years, and Garfield’s coach, Joyce Walker, is a former college star and Harlem Globetrotter.

In her junior year, Russell got pregnant and dropped out to have her baby. When she came back and tried to return to Resler’s team, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association disqualified her and threatened Roosevelt with forfeiture of any game in which she played. The team defiantly voted to keep Russell on, and the school sued the WIAA to reverse its ruling—all while Roosevelt High and Garfield High developed into the neck-and-neck favorites to win the state championship.

You can’t make this stuff up. Well, OK, you can, but you wouldn’t dare. The story is dramatically gripping and centered on a movie-friendly sport. On top of that, the people who appear on camera—Resler, Walker, their players, faculty, family members and friends—all are intelligent, photogenic and well-spoken; there are no inarticulate mumblers or “Wow, man, it was, like, y’know, so awesome” time-wasters on the soundtrack. This story was ripe for filming, and there’s no getting around the fact that Ward Serrill lucked into the subject of a lifetime.

But Serrill himself doesn’t drop the ball, if you’ll pardon the expression. He shot the film on digital video, serving as his own cinematographer. His equipment doesn’t seem to have been particularly high-end or sophisticated, yet the movie doesn’t look cheap or grainy. Serrill includes a lot of exciting game footage, too, and while it’s true that basketball is cinema-friendly, filming a game is no simple thing. (Look at the slovenly, chaotic game scenes in Glory Road, for example—and those scenes were staged.) Here, Serrill (or somebody under his control) always seems to be in the right place at the right time; film editor Eric Frith deserves credit, too, no doubt. Serrill’s interviews are insightful while he himself remains unobtrusive, and his written narration (read by Ludacris) is incisive and engrossing.

The Heart of the Game is one of the best feel-good sports documentaries to come along in years. A strong story, interesting people and a first feature from a writer-director who seems to be an instinctive documentary filmmaker. That combination is about as close to a miracle as we can ask for when we plunk down our money at the box office.