To start, if the IMDB is to be believed, the writer/director Robert Collector has amassed an unusual and curious collection of credits, all in the lower regions of "B" movie making. His previous directorial efforts include Red Heat (1985), a Linda Blair women-in-prison film, and Nightflyers (1987), a sci-fi horror movie not unlike Alien. His writing credits include Jungle Warriors (1984) and John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992). It's an odd leap, from these drive-in movies to Believe in Me, 15 years later, but Collector brings that inventive, thrifty, B-movie spirit with him.
Frankly it doesn't matter a double-dribble whether or not the new film Believe in Me is based on a true story; the formula is exactly the same either way. A radical new coach descends upon a repressed, conservative small town, reluctantly takes on a ragtag team of losers, and whips them into shape just in time to win the state championship, all the while dealing with personal issues and maybe a stock bad guy, a sourpuss who for whatever reason can't wait to see the team lose.
Believe in Me is not much different from Miracle, Glory Road, Coach Carter, Gridiron Gang, We Are Marshall (and probably the new Pride, which I haven't seen yet) and other recent inspirational sports dramas. In fact, I'd suggest that the gruff-but-caring coach is for the current decade what drill instructors were for the 1980s. These movies take their inspiration seriously, and present their true, formulaic stories with a kind of impenetrable bombast and without much wiggle room; the packaging suggests that, if you criticize this movie, you're really criticizing the real heroes behind the story. What Believe in Me does differently is that it keeps a low profile.
On the other end, distributor IFC Films has decided that the film is just too bumpkin for big city sophisticates, and so the film's release pattern brings it only to "outlying regions," rather than metropolises like New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. We're apparently too intellectual and heartless to appreciate the story of an all-girl basketball team in Oklahoma in 1964 and 1965. Jeffrey Donovan (Hitch) stars as the hapless coach Clay Driscoll (based on real hall-of-fame coach Jim Keith) who after seven years of assistant coaching, arrives in Middleton expecting to be the head boys' basketball coach.
Unfortunately, the job has been filled by someone's nephew and, since it's too late to look for a job elsewhere, the newcomer is forced to take the job coaching the girls' team. The girls, of course, have barely ever won a game, much less a championship. At first, he half-heartedly runs them through some drills, but his clever wife Jean (Samantha Mathis) provides some crucial pointers on how to deal with small town lasses.
The girls themselves are pretty much interchangeable; one gets pregnant and another is saddled with a domineering father who demands that she be placed in scoring position. Perhaps the most recognizable face belongs to Heather Matarazzo, who played a seventh grader in Welcome to the Dollhouse over ten years ago and is just now reaching her senior year in high school.
The one character that is not interchangeable is Ellis Brawley (Bruce Dern), a Dick Cheney-type whose money and connections puts him in charge of everybody and everything in the town. Sadly, Collector paints him as one-dimensionally curdled, out to ruin everyone else's fun without the slightest hint of a reason or a driving force. He doesn't even have so much as a dead wife or an estranged son to spur on his nastiness. Dern can play kooky or sweet (see him in the current The Astronaut Farmer), but he can't really find a center for this kind of baddie.
Another casting casualty is Samantha Mathis (Broken Arrow), a pixie-ish beauty with a fierce twinkle in her eye. She belongs on the loose, prowling through active, searching roles, and she feels lost as Clay's wife, sitting at home or sitting at games and generally supporting her husband. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that passive roles like this should go to more limited actresses: Tara Reid, Jaime Pressly or Jessica Simpson could make an entire career out of them.
All gripes aside, Collector packs Believe in Me with an irresistible earnestness. Part of this comes from Donovan, who brings the proper amount of stubbornness and gentleness to his role as coach, and from Collector's obvious adoration. The director shoots the basketball sequences exactly right, with jumpy clarity. He guides the games with just the right balance of amateur awkwardness; unlike the other Hollywood movies, these athletes are far from highly polished pros. He edits well, incorporating the ticking clock and shots of the evil opposing team and their constant, unpunished fouls. Collector's major sin is the annoying game announcer that continually babbles about "these scrappy underdogs from Middleton!"
Likewise, Collector can't resist a few cloying, motivational speeches from time to time, but overall, he comes in nicely under the radar, avoiding most of the typical side effects of this genre. We can watch without guilt. It's not exactly a game-winning three-pointer, but it's at least the equivalent of a free throw -- and Collector sinks it.