[Screen It]


(2016) (Christopher Severio, Neal McDonough) (PG)

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Drama: A man tries to come to grips with the untimely death of his younger brother who was just on the cusp of NFL stardom.
It's 1999 and Marty Burlsworth (NEAL McDONOUGH) is awaiting the funeral of his 22-year-old brother, Brandon (CHRISTOPHER SEVERIO). While others, including Marty's mother, Barbara (LESLIE EASTERBROOK), have accepted the loss and put their faith in God, Marty can't do that as he doesn't understand why God would take away his brother on the cusp of his stardom in the NFL. That doubt is shared by a stranger, The Farmer (NICK SEARCY), who does what he can to reinforce Marty's anger.

As preparations for the funeral begin, the story rewinds to when Brandon was a 12-years-old with big dreams of playing for the University of Arkansas, and then his days playing high school football for Coach Tice (PETER LEWIS). It's then that Marty and Brandon's long-estranged father, Leo (MICHAEL PARKS), an alcoholic former musician, tries to get back into their and Barbara's lives, but Marty does his best to protect his younger brother, what with being 17 years older than him and often mistaken for being his father.

When Brandon doesn't get a scholarship to become a Razorback as an offensive guard, he's determined to join the team as a walk-on, something offensive line coach Coach Bender (FREDRIC LEHNE) doesn't see happening, what with Brandon's excessive weight. The sight of him isn't lost on other players such as Nathan Ward (JOSH EMERSON), Anthony Lucas (TEXAS BATTLE) or Grant Garrett (GRANT COOK) -- the latter of whom is assigned as Brandon's roommate - and they make fun of him relentlessly.

But with hard work, Brandon drops the pounds and eventually proves himself on the field, turning around everyone's opinion of him. In doing so, he also inspires the team to near greatness in his senior year, all by working and practicing hard, and following instructions and advice from others in his life.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There's a moment in the religious-based football movie "Greater" where two men sit on the sideline bench of an empty high school football field and talk about the recent death of a former star player. Considering the young man was just 22-years-old, the two understandably question why God would allow this to happen.

The younger man, who just so happens to be the sibling to the deceased, states that when things go the way people want, they praise God, but when things don't, the usual explanation is that God works in mysterious ways. The other, much older man, who's working on a whittling block that's suspiciously starting to look like the first man, is certainly willing to feed into the grieving man's doubts.

Now, it won't take a rocket scientist or even high school football coach to release that instigator, never named in the film but listed in the credits as "The Farmer," is none other than Beelzebub, a.k.a. Old Nick, or simply the Devil. And at that point, one couldn't be blamed for thinking this might just be a sports variation of the old Robert Johnson down at the Georgia crossroads tale.

Yet, rather than sell his soul in exchange for some wild guitar licks, this young man might have just done the same from a football standpoint somewhere in Arkansas, what with him beating the incredibly unlikely odds of going from an obese kid not even guaranteed to make the high school football team to the first walk-on player at the University of Arkansas, only to be named first team all-American and then drafted into the NFL. That would certainly seem to explain Old Scratch having recently collected his end of such a tit-for-tat bargain and is now just rubbing it in.

That would have made for a far more intriguing movie than this earnest but flawed flick that's based on a true story -- minus the selling the soul bit -- but is yet another example of cinematic preaching to the choir where the end result won't play beyond those already in the congregation. Of course, there will be those who don't mind that, but if you want to reach more people with your message, more subtlety and a better movie are certainly what's called for.

Proof positive of that is "Field of Dreams," arguably one of the greatest baseball films ever made. Some view it as only that and origin of the "Build it and they will come" saying (which actually started with "If you build it, he will come." But it's really a subtle flick about God, blind faith, forgiveness (toward one's father) and the existence of Heaven. I get goosebumps and a bit teary-eyed just thinking about the flick and its uplifting ending. Unfortunately, I didn't remotely have the same reaction to this film despite it going after the same sort of message and themes.

The flick -- from writer/director David Hunt and co-writer Brian Reindl -- starts off somewhat clumsily (in terms of editing) and throws viewers for something of a loop as we see the aforementioned grieving man looking at a casket. Surely, one thinks, it's this man's son in there, but then it's mentioned it's his brother and one's mind goes into confusion mode since the actor playing that part, Neal McDonough, looks every bit of his 50-years of age.

That's even truer when the story rewinds to when the future star athlete is just 12-years-old and his brother, well, still looks fifty or older. It becomes something of a running joke as other characters in the film make that similar mistake, so I'm guessing it might have been true to the real life story (and if there was any mention of the boy being adopted, true or not, I missed that). Either way, the boy's mother (played by 67-year-old Leslie Easterbrook) also looks too old, which similarly holds true for 76-year-old Michael Parks playing the boy's long-estranged, alcoholic, former musician father.

It makes the movie "Grease" look like a depiction of casting age accuracy in comparison and certainly gets one thinking all of these characters made a bad deal with the Devil and have prematurely aged. Yes, that might be cinematic nitpicking for those who just want a movie to affirm their belief that God has a master plan for everyone and we should just go along for the ride with blind faith. But as a moviegoer, there simply isn't enough suspension of disbelief to buy into the age problem.

The rest of the flick -- when not occasionally jumping back to the present to have McDonough's shaken faith man and Nick Searcy's "farmer" character doubting on God -- follows the progression of our protagonist (played by Christopher Severio in a somewhat flat manner, especially as compared to Quinton Aaron as the young player in "The Blind Side"). We watch as he overcomes the long odds, challenges and fat-shaming in both high school and college to become an unlikely national football star, leader of the team and local cultural phenomenon with his signature game glasses. This could have been a great film, especially since it's based on the true story of Brandon Burlsworth who went from unlikely to ever play college walk-on to star player for the Razorbacks and then NFL draftee.

The fact that he died before ever getting to play for the Indianapolis Colts is tragic. As is the fact that this isn't a better movie. Had the filmmakers not repeatedly returned to the "doubting Thomases" and instead just played the film out chronologically, it would have had more of an emotional impact.

The main character's death would then have been just as shocking to viewers as the characters, and the "Why did God do this/allow this to happen" questions could have come up then and be properly addressed. Instead, the doubt is hammered home to the point of cinematic bludgeoning, with McDonough's character all too easily changing his mind and accepting what's happened in blind faith so that the movie can wrap up.

I'm sure the film will play to those already on the same team, so to speak, which is perfectly fine. But all involved should have watched "Field of Dreams" or "The Blind Side" to see how to tell a faith-based sports tale that appeals to the masses without driving home the point like an offensive guard plowing through a defensive line. "Greater" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed August 25, 2016 / Posted August 26, 2016

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