I suspect that somewhere in Hollywood, studios keep people locked away in a room, paging through hundreds of old sports magazines and newspapers, trying to find something that would make a good inspirational movie. They buy the rights to the story, then set about adding the usual ingredients - Have the star player character be an outcast, give them a coach or family figure with a past, and set the story in one of those small towns you only see in movies - The ones where everyone is involved in everybody else's business.
The Longshots has all of those things, but it also has two performances that make the movie almost worth watching. At the heart of the film is Keke Palmer, a young actress who I first noticed as the title character in 2006's Akeelah and the Bee. She was very good in that movie, and she's just as good here as Jasmine Plummer, a brainy and withdrawn 11-year-old girl who discovers a hidden talent for football the more time she spends with her Uncle Curtis (Ice Cube). Jasmine doesn't want anything to do with Curtis at first. Her mother (Tasha Smith) pays him to watch her daughter after school when she has to start working longer shifts at her job. Curtis is a washed up drunk stuck in the past, when he used to be the star player on the high school football team until an injury cut his dreams short. When he discovers his niece has a talent for the sport, he starts to straighten up and becomes determined to see her succeed at something for once by having her try out for her school's team. The plotting may be as old as the hills, but Palmer is a very natural talent. She plays Jasmine as a real girl, and never acts for the camera. Her reaction to everything seems very honest and is never forced.
I liked Ice Cube a lot also, even if he is playing the same kind of character he usually plays in movies these days. He fills both "the family figure and the coach with a past" role, since he takes over as head of the team when the coach has a mild heart attack during practice one day. He may be playing the gruff loser who secretly has a heart of cold, but he is able to give Curtis a very appealing down to Earth personality. I didn't like the character at first, as the movie has to constantly remind us he's an alcoholic by having him carrying a beer bottle in a brown paper bag at all times, even when he's inside Jasmine's school for career day. (Something tells me the teacher would make a bigger deal about that than she does in this movie.) But the movie drops the "angry drunk" angle with the character fairly soon, and starts treating him somewhat more like a real person. That's when both the character and the performance started to grow on me. The quiet and personal scenes he shares with Palmer are very sweet, and the two have good chemistry with each other. It got to the point that I found myself thinking I wouldn't mind an entire movie just about them.
Unfortunately, the movie isn't just about them. It's also about their town, and how it starts to come together once it looks like Jasmine's team might be heading for the championship. When it looks like the team won't have enough money to make it to Florida for the big game, the entire town pitches in. Even the homeless people give what little they have to help little Jasmine live her dream. Heck, the homeless people in this town even help lead the team to victory by shouting advice to the players from the sidelines. I kept on picturing the sign on display as you're driving into this town, and imagine it would read "Home of the nicest street people in the world" under the town's name. The movie asks the kind of questions we'd expect it to ask. Of course the boys on the football team are not happy about having a girl playing with them. Will they accept her? And Jasmine has a dead-beat dad who walked out on her when she was young, only to have him come back when she starts getting national media attention for her football skills. Will she welcome him back into her life? And naturally, the movie has to ask if the team will make it to the big game. The answer to the question may be obvious, but at least the outcome of the climax isn't as much.
The Longshots has certainly been made with more care than I expected walking in, but I could never get over how standard everything was except the two lead performances were. Were it not for them, this would probably be a lost cause. There is one unintentional laugh at the very end, though. After the last scene fades out, we see a picture of the real life Jasmine Plummer, with a caption underneath informing us that she was the first girl to play football in the Pop Warner football tournament. Like the movie didn't just already spend 95 minutes telling us that.
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