Running time: 100 minutes
Aspect ratio: 1:78:1
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 & 2.0
English and Spanish subtitles
Street date: 02/02/2010 MSRP: $27.95
When I mention More Than A Game in conversation, most folks give me a blank stare. Those who have heard of it reply, "Oh, yeah, the LeBron James story." The first group are sadly uninformed about a compelling sports story. The second group is just misinformed. More Than A Game is a story of five friends becoming men. One of those friends happens to be LeBron James.
Directed by Kristopher Belman, More Than A Game started out as a project for Belman's documentary filmmaking class at Loyola Marymount University. Belman, an Akron, Ohio native, was visiting home on holiday in 2002 and looking for a subject for a class assignment. He needed to shoot a 10 minute non-fiction film. By chance, Belman read a newspaper article about a group of kids at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School who had been playing basketball together since the fourth grade. Now, as seniors, they were now on the verge of something great. This led the student-filmmaker to ask the coach of the team, Dru Joyce, if he could spend some time filming the players in practice. What began as a single morning of filming for a homework assignment resulted in a feature-length documentary that took nearly seven years to bring to the screen.
The film is bookended by the events of the Ohio High School Basketball Championships. If St. Vincent-St. Mary wins this game, they will also be crowned national champions. The guts of the film is the trip to this game. In addition to Coach Joyce, the key characters are four young men who have grown up together, brothers under the skin and a fifth player who transfers onto the team as a sophomore and struggles to fit. LeBron James is the star of the team, but he is just another member of the film's ensemble and, in interviews conducted in 2008, it is clear that he wants it that way.
Anyone who follows sports and/or uses the Internet can get the facts on St. Vincent-St. Mary's astonishing run of success from 2000 to 2003. I will not recap it here. The compelling part of More Than A Game is not the outcome of the games, but how this 'team of destiny' was created. These are literally kids who grew up together. Even with a talent like James, it is unlikely that they would have experienced their success if they had not been a unit on the court--and a family off of it--from the time they were 8 years old. This group functions as brothers which makes life difficult for Romeo Travis, a talented player who joins the self-named Fab Four as a sophomore, a year after the group, as freshmen, won their first state title. Travis's isolation is a source of tension for the team and for the film.
Individually, the kids' stories will be familiar to many. There are inner-city kids with families rocked by drug and alcohol problems, others who deal with the loss of a parent at an early age, and some who come from intact families. This last group provide an anchor to some of the kids whose home lives are less than ideal. As a group and at a young age, the kids deal with blowback from their community when they decide that they want to continue to play together in high school. It is expected that they will all play for the local public high school, or, "the black school," as described by one of the players. One player, Coach Joyce's son, Dru III, decides that his best shot at getting playing time would be at St. Vincent-St. Mary. When he enrolls, the rest of the team follows. Dru III describes the community reaction as betrayal and that the kids are "pimping for St. V's." Nonetheless, the Fab Four go to St. Vincent-St. Mary and make history.
More Than A Game tells an exciting story that kept me glued to the screen. The filmmaking, however, is derivative. Most of the time, I felt like I was watching an ESPN special or an HBO Sports documentary in which sport is treated as a spiritual or religious experience. Emotional moments are underscored by heavily dramatic music and ample use is made of slo-mo when the filmmaker wants to make sure we don't miss the point that the music is telegraphing. Belman also shoe-horns in the technique of adding depth to still photos that I first saw in The Kid Stays in the Picture so many years ago. Belman would certainly get an A in his Loyola Marymount class, but for a commercial feature, it's middling stuff.
The subject matter continually rises above the director's technique and has stayed with me long after viewing the film. I live in central New Jersey, not far from New York City. I have two high school basketball powers not far from me. They are St. Anthony's in Hudson County and St. Patrick's in Union County. Both schools annually contend for state and national championships and both send players to the pros (NBA or international) every year. Before watching More Than A Game, I assumed that St. Vincent-St. Mary was another basketball mill like the schools close to my home. In the past, St. Pat's has received press coverage for importing players from other countries primarily to win basketball games. Happily, I was wrong about St. Vincent-St. Mary and the Fab Four. This was a home grown group and there was no manipulation of the system to make players from other states or countries eligible for the team. I guess I was glad to see that a modicum of purity remains below the NCAA Division 1-A level.
Rating: 5/5 for content, 3/5 for filmmaking
More Than A Game is a blend of several different sources, all of which appear to be digital in nature. The cleanest video is that of the present-day interviews with the players and coaches.These images approach film in quality as they are professionally lit and framed. These are not caught 'on the fly.' In fact, one interviewee, Romeo Travis (the outsider), is shot in lower lighting and profile. The lighting is dramatic and does not obscure the subject in any way. This is clearly a conscious choice, but I cannot come up with an explanation for it.
In-game footage varies wildly in quality. Youth league games are mostly grainy images from the camcorders of friends and family. High school games are also shot with amateur cameras, but as the team's fame grows, we start seeing more and more footage from local TV stations and, finally, the holy grail: ESPN. The quality of this video is much better, but we are always aware that it is a standard definition picture.
Audio also varies dependent upon the source. The soundtrack is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and there is some surround when we are listening to licensed music and the original score composed for the film. There is also some surround heard when the crowd noise is heard. I suspect that this was pumped up in the studio. As stated earlier, the music is often used to manipulate emotions in concert with the images, but it generally sounds great. Much of the non-game footage is talking heads, which is confined to the front speakers.
The extras are slim. In addition to trailers for a few other Lionsgate releases, there are three features specific to the film:
"More Than a Film" is a feature on the evolution of the film from a student short to a feature-length film. We hear most from director Belman, but also get some insights from the coach and school administration on how they approached having a camera around all the time. We also hear from the players about how "cameraman" (Belman) became a part of their everyday life.
"Winning Ways: A Look Inside Sports Psychology" talks about the positive and negative effects sports can have on kids. The essential message is that, for youth, sports is neutral. Sports does not teach sportsmanship or build character. It is the quality of the adult leadership that is the deciding factor.
"Behind the Music" is a chat with producer and composer Harvey Mason, Jr. We basically learn how rare it is for a documentary to have an original score played by an 80-piece orchestra.
None of the pieces run more than 10 minutes.
More Than A Game is a warm-hearted tale of the struggle of helping boys grow into honorable manhood, all while the spotlight of the electronic media grows hotter and hotter. It ultimately overcomes ordinary storytelling to be memorable.