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‘When the Game Stands Tall’: Football, faith and the merits of losing

Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel right with Michael Chiklis) coaches an undefeated team “When Game Stands Tall.”  |

Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel, right, with Michael Chiklis) coaches an undefeated team in “When the Game Stands Tall.” | TRISTAR PICTURES

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Bob Ladouceur Jim Caviezel

Bev Ladouceur Laura Dern

Danny Ladouceur Matthew Daddario

Terry Eidson Michael Chiklis

Tristar Pictures presents a film directed by Thomas Carter and written by Scott Marshall Smith, based on the book by Neil Hayes. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic material, a scene of violence and brief smoking). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: September 23, 2014 6:12AM

Considering that the De La Salle High School Spartans are the winningest team in high-school football history, if not the winningest team in any sport, ever, it’s interesting that “When the Game Stands Tall” is essentially a movie about losing.

Not flat-out, all-the-way, over-and-done losing. You don’t want people walking away from an inspirational sports movie feeling depressed, after all. No, we’re talking about losing as an opportunity to learn moral lessons, as in winning is less important than teamwork, brotherhood and faith. It’s also a Christian movie, in other words, co-produced by Affirm Films, a division of Sony Pictures associated with faith-based fare such as this year’s “Mom’s Night Out” and “Facing the Giants” in 2006 — another high-school football saga fueled by religion.

That doesn’t mean “When the Game” doesn’t supply a fair amount of decent on-the-field action for football fans. It does. But this is mainly an off-the-field story about how Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) led his Catholic school team through 12 straight undefeated seasons and what happened when they finally lost. With a bit of extracurricular tragedy and domestic drama thrown in.

“When the Game” opens with the Spartans crushing the life out of a hapless opponent to win its 11th straight California state championship. It’s an impressive display of athleticism, but it’s also a slaughter. In a conventional sports movie, these are the guys the underdogs would miraculously manage to defeat in the final Big Game.

In fact, that happens surprisingly soon after “When the Game” begins, though we see it from the Spartans’ point of view. And we also see it coming. For the first time in 12 years, Coach Lad has been sidelined by a heart attack during spring training, and the players have started thinking about themselves instead of the team. Their 151-game winning streak is over, but the coach, also a Bible-class teacher emphasizing Matthew 23:12 (“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled”), is less concerned about that than the effect it might have on the character of his players.

“When the Game” does work several star players into the story: one who needs to be taken down a peg, one who’s being bullied by his father and one who becomes a victim of random street violence. Mostly, though, it’s the Coach Lad show, if you can call quietly radiating moral authority showmanship.

That’s only one of the ways Coach Lad defies macho stereotypes. The guy never raises his voice (an assistant coach played by Michael Chiklis handles the screaming and bellowing). His pre-game team meetings have an encounter-group vibe, with his players standing up to say how much they love each other, man. And he considered his team’s epic winning streak a spiritual burden — meaning he’s the only one who’s not eager to begin another one.

As a leader, though, his gifts verge on mind control. His players will do anything for him, up to and including walking onto the field each game two-by-two and holding hands. Consider for a moment the almost hypnotic persuasiveness that must have been required to convince teenage boys — football players —to do that.

The world is fortunate he chose to use those powers only for good.

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