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It's not hard to make a sports movie; the basic elements have surrounded us ever since Gene Hackman was a coach in Indiana. Or is that since Sean Astin played for Notre Dame? Either way, everyone knows what it takes. A ragtag team (or, occasionally, just one ragtag player), a coach with personal problems and a stubborn attitude, a community hesitant at first but eventually willing to support the team, and, of course, a faceless rival team with everything going for it that our heroes lack.
The Longshots has all of these things, plus some parental drama and even a random dance scene set to "Whoomp! There It Is" by Tag Team, but it never coalesces into a football movie worth remembering. Fred Durst, who has had an under-the-radar directing career since becoming famous as the frontman of Limp Bizkit, seems so anxious to replicate popular sports movies of the past that he never comes up with anything worth exploring in his own movie.
Durst even has two very big things going for him in his lead actors, the charismatic Ice Cube and the stellar Keke Palmer, who was just as impressive two years ago in Akeelah and the Bee, her first role. Here she plays Jasmine Plummer, a shy adolescent in the depressed Midwestern town of Minden, Illinois, living with her single mom while hoping her dad will come back to her family one day. Her uncle, Curtis (Cube), is a drunk layabout who still harbors dreams of escaping to sunny Florida. When Jasmine's mom asks Curtis to stay with her daughter after school, Curtis discovers an innate football talent hidden beneath Jasmine's sullen exterior. Once he helps Jasmine talk her way onto the local Pop Warner football team, it's only a matter of time before the plucky girl and her newly energetic uncle whip that team--and their town-- into shape.
We meet a few of the other players and get a sense of their own family stories, though most of the other characters are shoved into the background. As Curtis takes over as an assistant coach on the team and endless training montages ensue, Jasmine herself takes a backseat as well, with the usual tropes about sportsmanship and teamwork replacing the unique, true story that we started with.
Jasmine Plummer really does seem like an amazing real-life figure-- the first girl to ever play Pop Warner football-- and the town of Minden seems to have truly rallied behind their girl hero. It's too bad, then, that the movie about them feels so rote and amateurish, as if it were written by committee by a film school class learning about the sports movie genre. Anyone who has never seen Friday Night Lights or Remember the Titans or Varsity Blues will be just fine; the rest of us would rather seek out the far superior original versions.