Review: Forever Strong (B+)

Forever Strong is a positive film in any sense of the word — positive in message, and positive in what it represents for the LDS film industry.

With this film and his previous one (the acclaimed Saints and Soldiers) director Ryan Little has shown that he has the ability to create professional films with a spiritual component that can hold their own (in quality, if not box office as of yet) among all US films, not just local Utah ones.   Little shows that he’s ready to step to the head of current LDS filmmakers, and knows that good films can be made by neither (1) sacrificing quality on the altar of cheap jokes about LDS culture, nor (2) sacrificing morality and a positive message on the altar of “art”.

Is Forever Strong even an LDS film, though?  One can argue it isn’t, since the Church is never mentioned by name, no character in the film ever reads scriptures, attends church, gets baptized, or even mentions anything resembling specific Church doctrine.  (Utah is never mentioned by name either — unless you pick up the “Wasatch” reference, or recognize the temple-free Salt Lake City skyline in a few shots, it would be difficult to make the LDS connection at all…)

Fundamentally, though, the story of Forever Strong deals with standards, honor, forgiveness, overcoming one’s mistakes, and achieving one’s best potential.   And, of course, Latter-Day Saints don’t have a monopoly on any of those values, but Forever Strong demonstrates that one can have a gospel message without needing to be about “the church” or its members in specific terms.

Forever Strong tells the story of Rick Penning, a talented high school rugby player in Arizona on a team with a very demanding coach, who also doubles as his father.   (Sort of.  Actually, his father pretty much ‘coaches’ instead of ‘parents’ at home, too, which gives you a key insight into some of their family problems.)

After a loss to their arch-rival from Highland (Utah), Rick gets drunk, gets himself in a car accident, and is sentenced to juvenile prison in…Utah.  (I’m not sure a crime committed in Arizona would result in anyone get sent to a juvenile center out of state, but, okay, we’ll just go with it.  Apparently, this part of the story is based on a true experience)  One thing leads to another, and Rick is invited to join Highland’s rugby team as part of his rehabilitation, helping them back into the national championship tournament — and with it a return matchup with his former team.

While Forever Strong features a story about sports, it has at its heart something more than just a stereotypical ‘sports movie’.   As Rick learns about Highland’s standards and ideals, and their laid-back, seemingly hands-off coach, he realizes that their emphasis is on commitment to moral excellence and service off the field, which go hand in hand with their on-the-field success.   As Rick learns about how to be a better rugby player, he simultaneously learns about how to become a better person.

Forever Strong’s moral center is portrayed effectively through some professional acting (and decent writing), with a variety of familiar faces such as Sean Astin from Rudy/Lord of the Rings.  Rick himself (who looks strikingly like a young Tom Cruise) has a more clichéd role of the petulant and rebellious teenager who learns to grow up, but is still effective.

The quality of the other elements makes it mildly disappointing that Forever Strong ends up clinging a little too closely to the standard clichés of sports movies, when it had put itself in prime position to transcend the genre entirely.   (So, yes, that means we get the obligatory ending with Highland playing their arch-rival for the championship, and yes, the game comes down to the last few seconds, and yes, guess which character gets the chance to score the winning points.)

There are a few other nitpicks:  (I liked the film, remember, but I’m just getting these out of the way…)

Learning Curve: The rules and positions of rugby aren’t explained, so if you’re a rugby neophyte — which I would imagine most viewers of this movie will be — you may find the actual rugby action hard to follow.  I don’t know if there was a non-awkward way to introduce rugby to the viewer in the context of the film, since, of course, everyone in the film already knows how to play.  However, when a dramatic plot point revolves around Rick being asked to be a “hook” instead of a “forward”, it would have been nice, you know, to know exactly what that’s supposed to signify.

Character Issues: The character of Rick’s father is (in comparison to everyone else) too one-note and simplistic.  His dialogue and character arc lack the same realism that other characters possess, which is too bad as the relationship between Rick and his father accounts for a large part of the story’s dramatic impact.  A ‘love-interest’ of a sort is introduced for Rick, but her character really has no part to play, and those scenes end up distracting from the real story.   “Forever Strong” also features a sudden and tragic death of a supporting character which, while heartfelt, isn’t really integrated well into the rest of the story, and has that same feeling of being ultimately superfluous.

Bad Announcers: The announcers for the championship rugby tournament are laughably bad — I was beginning to wonder if it was deliberately written as some sort of comic relief, although I’m thinking no.

Announcer #1:  “And the score is tied, 14-14.”

Announcer #2: “It’s ANYONE’S game at this point!”
(Gee, ya think?  That’s what being ‘tied’ means…)

Announcer #2 (after a Highland victory in the quarterfinals): “And Highland is making themselves into a contender in this tournament!”

(Say what?  Highland is the defending national champion, and the tournament’s #1 seed.  I think they were already a “contender”…)

Nitpicks aside, Forever Strong is a good film — not perfect, but a great example of what modern day LDS filmmakers can produce if given the opportunity.

Final Grade: B+

Other Random Comments:

(1) Rick’s father is played by Neal McDonough, one of those “familiar face” actors that you see in small parts in TV/movie roles but whom you never know the name of.  (Some of his roles include small parts in Minority Report and Star Trek: First Contact)  In coaching garb, he bears more than a passing resemblance to BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall, although ironically, Coach Mendenhall’s philosophy about sports and moral excellence is much closer to the other coach in the movie, Highland’s Larry Gelwix.

(2) A moment of unintentional humor:  during the end credits, there is a (obviously boilerplate) notice about “events and characters in this movie are fictional and any resemblance to actual people or events is entirely unintentional.”

Let’s see: the movie starts by saying, “Based on True Events”, it features a character named for and based on an actual person (Highland coach Larry Gelwix), and even shows the real Coach Gelwix’s picture at the end with some stats about the actual Highland Rugby team’s success on the field.  Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems like they were trying pretty hard to intentionally resemble actual people and events.