Facing the Giants combines two genres that tend to be formulaic and clichéd: the inspirational sports movie, and the inspirational Christian film. Shot with an all-volunteer cast on a $100,000 budget raised by the members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, it’s a story of faith and football centering on a high-school football coach at a Christian school whose six-year losing streak is mirrored by failure in just about every area of his life.
Grant Taylor (director Alex Kendrick, who co-wrote with his brother Stephen) drives an old bomb that reliably needs a push or a jump to get going. He and his wife Brooke (Shannen Fields) have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child for four years, and visits to fertility specialists confirm that the problem is Grant. Their house needs repairs they can’t afford — and, for some reason, it just plain stinks.
Then there’s coaching. Grant coaches the Shiloh Eagles, the losing team of a spiritually anemic Christian high school. The season starts badly with Grant’s star player transferring to another school, followed by three straight losses, including one to the worst team in the state. Before long, parents are talking behind Grant’s back about giving Grant’s job to one of his assistant coaches, and eventually even his colleagues aren’t willing to support him.
Because Facing the Giants is an inspirational sports film, we know Grant will somehow get his groove back, turn the team around, and get his life on track. Because it is an inspirational Christian film, there will be prayer, Bible reading, revival, and learning to trust God and put him first.
It’s Remember the Titans by way of “Davey and Goliath” — or rather, David and Goliath, since the film ultimately pits its underdog heroes, including an undersized kicker named David (Bailey Cave), against the aptly named Giants, perennial state title defenders.
Knowing no more about the film than that, you might have a pretty good idea what to expect from Facing the Giants. And in fact the film delivers more or less what you’d expect — though it does so perhaps a bit better than you’d expect it to.
In particular, the film pulls off the potentially problematic combination of religious and athletic inspiration more often than not — at least on the field. Grant’s coaching blend of motivational speaking and revival preaching in the second half works on both counts, and the film finds some clever ways to connect faith and success without reducing belief to a lucky feather or God to a team mascot.
Among the film’s best moments is a scene in which Grant blindfolds a promising young player and pushes him further than he ever thought he could go, a scene that would be a memorable addition in any of today’s Hollywood sports movies. Later, there’s a clever twist after a defeat in an important game in which integrity rather than pure athleticism or even points is the deciding factor in which team advances.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers haven’t figured out how to realize the critical spiritual turning points off the field — Grant’s spiritual awakening, the revival that comes to Shiloh, the transformation of a sullen player we barely know. These moments of conversion are plot points that just happen with no sense of character development or insight. The filmmakers understand Grant’s helplessness and depression in the first half of the film, and his sense of inner peace and conviction in the second half — but not how he gets from the one to the other.
The crucial scene in which Grant stands in a lightly wooded field reading his Bible and praying for inspiration just doesn’t work as a dramatic turning point. For one thing, it’s the first time we see Grant praying, so there’s no sense how this experience is in any way new or different for him, or what might have been lacking before.
As a point of contrast, consider how Robert Duvall’s The Apostle used prayer and spiritual experience to reveal and explore the protagonist’s psyche and character arc. His prayers weren’t just plot points, they were an integral part of who he was and what he was going through. Facing the Giants has no idea how to do this; as competently as it sketches Grant’s descent into depression and failure, the moment he cracks a Bible and starts praying the movie feels like an evangelization tool rather than a dramatic story.
Perhaps the problem is that the filmmakers started with the Remember the Titans/Friday Night Lights template and then added faith, rather than beginning with questions of faith and looking for the best way to tell a story about them. Not only is this not the most effective way of addressing issues of faith, for independent filmmakers with a six-figure budget a $30 million Hollywood studio film is probably not the best model. Instead of taking their inspiration from films like Remember the Titans and Friday Night Lights, the filmmakers might have aimed more more something in the vein of, say, The Station Agent, or Lost in Translation, or Pieces of April.
Facing the Giants eventually runs afoul of a dramatic problem that might be called the Aragorn Effect (not to be confused with the Aragorn Complex, i.e., the Hollywood penchant for reluctant, self-doubting leaders à la The Prince of Egypt’s Moses and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s Peter). This would be the creative error of depriving subordinate characters of strength and virtue in order to make everyone dependent on the hero. (At various points in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, characters including Théoden and even Gandalf were diminished that Aragorn might increase.)
The most glaring victim of the Aragorn Effect in Facing the Giants is the secondary protagonist, David. A second-string kicker who goes out for football only because there’s no soccer at Shiloh, David is not only gratuitously unpromising as a player, he seems almost entirely lacking in self-confidence and determination.
David kicks the ball like he’s given up before he even tries, thus affording Grant the opportunity for more inspirational speechifying. Even at a climactic point toward the end of the film, David is still diffident about his potential, requiring the combined inspirational efforts of Grant and David’s own wheelchair-bound father to give him the confidence to put his whole heart into a critical kick.
A more interesting approach might have been to take the biblical precedent for the character more seriously. David son of Jesse was a young firebrand who had slain bears and lions even before taking on Goliath. King Saul and his men might have had doubts about putting David up against the Philistine giant, but David wasn’t afraid; when he put that one little stone into the sling, he was trusting in God, but he also knew darn well that he was a crack shot.
The idea of making David a soccer enthusiast was a good one. Why not let that translate into a gift for kicking, at least in terms of accuracy, if not distance? Why not let him have the drive of a Rudy, a pint-sized player determined to make good despite his limitations? Why not let him help Grant inspire the team to aim for greatness? Why not let David be the one pushing Grant in the clutch to take a leap of faith and let him go for that critical field goal, rather than having Grant once again urging David to really try this time?
But no: After his spiritual reawakening, Grant never needs to be challenged, supported or inspired by anyone else; like Aragorn, he does all the challenging and supporting and inspiring. Like everything else in the film, it’s a bit neat, a bit lacking in real-world complexity and messiness. Can’t Grant’s new-found sense of direction ever waver? Or can’t there be one problem that doesn’t evaporate by the end of the film?
Though its faults are inescapable, Facing the Giants is far from a disaster or an embarrassment. It’s fitfully entertaining on its own terms, and scene for scene probably offers more of interest than, say, Gridiron Gang. Production was overseen by a number of Hollywood professionals including cinematographer Bob Scott (Any Given Sunday), so the technical values are solid. Acting credits, though not professional, are often quite decent, with Kendrick and Fields particularly making Grant and Brooke a likable, sympathetic couple.
With fans of its two genres, especially in the Bible Belt, Facing the Giants will doubtless be a success. To reach a broader audience, though, the filmmakers will have to scrap their playbook and learn a whole new set of rules.
Facing the Giants (DVD)
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.