Under the Stadium Lights, 2021.
Directed by Todd Randall.
Starring Milo Gibson, Laurence Fishburne, Abigail Hawk, Acoryé White, Carter Redwood, Germain Arroyo, Adrian Favela, Eddie George, Glenn Morshower, Nicholas Delgado, Iris Seifert, Bridget Fitzgerald, Ruthie Austin, Roger Prieto, Eric Martinez, Mari Harris, Maura Gale, Heidi Fellner, and Noel Gugliemi.
After a crushing defeat ended their prior season, everyone counted the Abilene Eagles out of title contention. Facing doubts and personal challenges both on and off the field, it takes the guidance of their team chaplain and a surrogate father figure for the players to realize what they can achieve when they stand united.
It’s hard to figure out where to begin with Under the Stadium Lights, a West Texas high school football biopic that fails at everything it sets out to do. Initially, the biggest concern is that director Todd Randall (adapting the book from Al Pickett with story input from the real-life team chaplain Chad Mitchell and a script from John Collins and Hamid Torabpour) doesn’t have the budget to show the characters playing games or practicing. Anytime a game comes up, the film offers the cuts to a highlight reel of the appropriate match. This is fine for the prologue, which establishes a prior heartbreaking loss to their state rivals and gives the team a motivating underdog challenge. Still, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no cinematic football in this football movie (save for the climactic championship game, but even that is so restricted to an attempt at replicating a few critical plays intercut with more archival footage).
The lack of football is not necessarily what sinks Under the Stadium Lights, though, as there’s plenty of troubled youth to focus on as the heart of the story. Unfortunately, the execution is shockingly fragmented and disjointed, only concentrating on one player at a time for about 15 minutes instead of something more natural that involves characters simultaneously, or at the very least doesn’t feel isolated as its own movie. This creative choice also doesn’t grant the writers any opportunities to flesh out the players and their rough upbringing (each teenager generally comes from a broken home or is surrounded by substance abuse), leaving them more identifiable by their position on the field. It also doesn’t help that the relatively unproven young ensemble is forced into melodramatic overacting to sell their individual story beats.
Problems at home are framed by team chaplain Chad Mitchell (played by Milo Gibson) listening and encouraging supporting one another alongside the notion of community (there’s a phrase about being someone’s brother’s keeper that is nauseatingly overused for cornball effect, to the point where the ending credits embarrassingly suggest to make it a social media hashtag), which would be fine if it balanced out any of the structural faults of the experience. If anything, matters are made worse as Chad has his own struggling friend to worry about and help recover. That’s not mentioning he is also a police officer, pastor, and wife to the rightfully frustrated Ashley (Abigail Hawk).
For elusive reasons, Laurence Fishburne is also present as a local diner manager. Under the Stadium Lights is also incapable of organically captivating viewers. Hence, it resorts to manipulative tactics such as a heart scare for the character as he watches the state championship game from a hospital bed. It’s also not the only chance the film takes it using a tragedy to increase the game’s stakes. Factoring the message of community is also peppered with some unsubtle religious propaganda, and you have a more annoying narrative than endearing.
Even for those willing to overlook or embrace the heavy-handed themes, Under the Stadium Lights is also poorly crafted, with some scene transitions fading to black mid-cheesy inspirational score and dialogue. The direction is noticeably extra lost as soon as the story runs out of games to stick highlight reel footage of between specific sequences. As for the championship game itself, it’s overly long. It can’t even communicate basic concepts such as how much time is remaining in the game beyond what quarter it is and lacks any semblance of importance. If the film was a 100-yard dash, it runs out of energy and momentum by the five-yard line.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com