Last year I saw Gracie, a movie about a teenage girl who wants to play high-school soccer in the late 1970s, when the game was considered a males-only sport in America, and faces a lot of opposition from her school. I finished my review with the line, "If it were football, would we be agreeing more with Gracie's opponents?" The Longshots gives us the opportunity to consider that question. Can we sympathize with, and cheer on, a girl who wants to succeed as a quarterback in an all-boys' football league? The answer is yes, because The Longshots focuses on characters and personal relationships and as a result, feels richer and more satisfying than the standard sports-genre film.

The story is simple and except for the girl-quarterback angle, old-fashioned in a Capra-esque way. Jasmine (Keke Palmer) is a middle-school loner and misfit in a small town hit by economic troubles. Her mom Claire (Tasha Smith) has to work longer hours at the diner -- dad ditched town and family several years ago -- and Jasmine is still too young to be left alone after school. So Claire pleads, nags and finally bribes her husband's brother Curtis (Ice Cube), an unemployed ex-football player, to keep an eye on his niece Jasmine. Of course they can't stand each other at first, but eventually Curtis discovers that Jasmine has an excellent throwing arm and teaches her how to be a quarterback. Meanwhile, the town's playground football team is languishing, and one thing they're missing is a decent quarterback, sooo ...
You know from the poster and the movie descriptions that a) Jasmine is based on a real-life girl who became the first quarterback on a Pop Warner team and b) Curtis ends up as a coach of some kind at some point in the film. This isn't a twisty suspense film, nor would you want it to be one. The "twists" are small and often humorous -- you haven't seen training scenes like the ones with Curtis and Jasmine, and the ending isn't exactly what you'd expect.

The biggest surprise is that the story rarely seems stale or routine, even though it's based on so many oft-used movie conventions. The Longshots owes a heavy debt to The Bad News Bears, especially when it comes to Curtis. Curtis' transformation is much less subtle than Walter Matthau's throughout that film, but the main character in The Longshots is not Jasmine or the team as a whole but Curtis. At times, I wondered when we were going to get back to the girl with the football, whose story I found more interesting and unusual. Fortunately, the script provides enough of a story arc about Jasmine that young girls (and women too) can sympathize with her and cheer her on and follow her.

The cast is steady rather than showy, which helps keep the film believable. Ice Cube seems to try a little too hard sometimes to show us how his character is feeling, but for the most part he handles the role ably. Keke Palmer, whom you might remember in the title role of Akeelah and the Bee, is delightful to watch -- I especially enjoyed the scenes in which she learns to throw passes to posters of Beyonce and Tyra Banks. The supporting cast, which contains a number of character actors from movies and TV, includes Tasha Smith as Jasmine's mother, which was a little strange for me since I'd last seen her as Wicked Mom in Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls, and Garrett Morris -- yes, the long-ago Saturday Night Live alum -- having a lot of fun as the town's preacher. The boys on the football team provide some comic relief and interest, most memorably Feather, played by Alan Aisenberg.

The Longshots is obviously aimed at kids -- boys and girls alike -- and sneaks in the usual morals without being too aggressive. The scene in which the football team members show off their touchdown victory dances is hilarious no matter how old or what gender you are ... and then shifts to the right note of teaching sportsmanship without preachiness. The girls at the screening I attended liked watching Jasmine, and I think it would be great if it inspired some of them to try new sports. As a grownup, I liked this movie more than I anticipated. Sure, the movie follows traditional sports-film lines, and the message of "we may not have much, but we have heart, and that's what counts" was a cliche 50 years ago. But the characters transcend the cliches and keep you involved. The Longshots was directed by Fred Durst, best known as the lead singer for Limp Bizkit -- it sound almost like a joke, but the punchline is that he did a capable job in creating a solid and enjoyable family film.