Anytime a movie opens with the words “based on actual events,” it is understandable to pause. Add to that a sports movie with metaphors about how to play that brutal game of life, and it’s perfectly O.K. to want to actually press pause, and switch over to ESPN. Don’t get us wrong, cinema has given us plenty of wonderful sports movies—Hoosiers, The Natural, Raging Bull (not to mention Mystery, Alaska!)—but the genre is anything but unpredictable. There’s a troubled hero/team, a coach whose tough exterior hides a soft underbelly of love, an insurmountable challenge (usually a championship game) and then a satisfying win—preferably at home. In Forever Strong, these major plot points are dutifully trod upon, with some interesting detours. For starters, the sport in question is rugby, which struck us as kind of odd because the last time we checked, nobody on this side of the Atlantic gets that fired up about rugby, not to mention—who on earth in the United States even understands it? Apparently, we were wrong, because in this movie—set in Arizona and Utah—rugby is an incredibly big deal. Huge. At the start of the film, we’re introduced to Rick Penning (Sean Faris), a brooding type with a difficult and demanding dad (the ever-creepily-blue-eyed Neal McDonough). Rick blows off some steam after a difficult game by drinking beer and recklessly driving with his girlfriend in a convertible—a scene that will make you not want to procreate so that you don’t have to think about your kids growing up and going to high school. He crashes the car, seriously injures his girlfriend and is hauled off to a youth detention center, where he might have to stay till he turns 18 and goes to prison. There, he gets into fights, mouths off to everyone who is inexplicably nice to him (like Sean Astin, who shows up, and whom we kept waiting to say, “Mr. Frodo”). Instead, Rick is sent to Coach Gelwix of the Highland Rugby team, which happens to be Rick’s team’s chief rival. Got all that? Gelwix is all about honesty and honor and having championships boys, not just championship wins (sigh), and is played by the great Gary Cole—as fantastic a character actor as is working today (one word: Lumbergh). But he unfortunately can’t save this one, which we could actually have gotten behind if it didn’t lose us on some very basic plot points—notably that Rick spends the first two-thirds of the picture being so jerky that we were actually rooting against him, before being instantly transformed into a heart-of-gold hero. (Don’t even get us started on the whole dropping of scarred girlfriend to woo a teammate’s sister.) For those keeping track, keep an eye out for Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley in a supporting role as a mean drug-pushing skinny weirdo with the most outrageous facial hair. Oh, Dan Humphrey … what did they do to you? By the end of the move, we still didn’t understand the totally bizarre chant (Is that Hawaiian? Is that even possible?) or the rules of rugby.
Forever Strong is playing at AMC Loews Village 7.