Like a football team facing daunting obstacles en route to a championship, My All American is up against it when it comes to filmmaking. It is an underdog-wins-out sports movie -- its director and writer, Angelo Pizzo, also wrote Hoosiers and Rudy, classics in the genre -- but this one carries an added emotional burden. It is also a cancer story.
And even then, it's not the first. Remember Brian's Song, the 1971 tear-jerker TV movie about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer, and his friendship with teammate Gale Sayers?
In his directing debut, Pizzo has a cast that rises to the challenge. Seasoned veteran Aaron Eckhart turns in an artfully understated performance as Darrell Royal, the University of Texas football coach, who saw in short, scrappy Freddie Steinmark exactly the kind of kid he wanted in Austin.
As it turns out, no other major school had even a passing interest in Steinmark, whose never-say-never drive calls to mind the title character in Rudy. Broadway actor Finn Wittrock plays Steinmark with just the right emotional notes. Irish actress Sarah Bolger, who plays his girlfriend, also deserves commendation for being able to overcome the inherent clichés that such a film presents.
But that's precisely the problem. By now, the weepy, inspirational sports film, with the added layer of fatal illness, is a cliché -- no matter how true the tale.
In 1969, the UT football team achieved the improbable by overcoming its arch-rival, the University of Arkansas, in a game attended by then-President Richard Nixon. The Longhorns ended their storybook season by upsetting Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, making their national title the stuff of football legend, with Steinmark on crutches cheering from the sideline. (Filming locations included the Cotton Bowl and the Texas Christian University campus in Fort Worth.)
Cancer caused him to have his leg amputated as far up as the hip. Younger kids may find that horrifying.
Is the film inspirational? Absolutely. Are its performances worthy? You bet. Does it rise above its predecessors, in the Brian's Song-Hoosiers-Rudy genre? In a word, no.
Should each of these be entered into a four-team College Football Playoff for movies, this one would finish fourth. And it would not be close -- unless, of course, you're a graduate of UT, where My All American may end up as an annual staple on the Longhorn Network.
My All American (B-)
Directed by Angelo Pizzo. PG (thematic elements, language and brief partial nudity). 118 mins. In wide release.