Movie Review for Forever Strong (2008)

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Review #692 of 365
Movie Review of Forever Strong (2008) [PG-13] 112 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $12.50
Where Viewed: Harkins Ciné Capri at Northfield 18, Denver, CO
When Seen: 26 September 2008 @ 4:30 pm
DVD Release Date: Unscheduled (please check back)
Unsung Crew Member: Best Boy Electric-Alan Stoddard
After the Credits: There is a black & white, Highland Chant scene

Soundtrack: order the CD below

Directed by: Ryan Little (House of Fears )
Written by: David Pliler (Outlaw Trail: The Treasure of Butch Cassidy)

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Gary Cole (Pineapple Express) • Sean Faris (Never Back Down) • Neal McDonough (Traitor) • Julie Warner (Stick It) • Sean Astin (The Final Season) • Penn Badgley (John Tucker Must Die) • Michael J. Pagan (Gridiron Gang) • Nathan West (Miracle) • Max Kasch (Shrooms) • Arielle Kebbel (The Grudge 2) • Tyler Kain ("Saints & Sinners")

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If you're not that in to USA Rugby, you might never have heard of Highland Rugby and their remarkable coach, the winningest in all of USA Rugby history, Larry Gelwix (record against other high school teams in 32 years of coaching 390 wins 9 losses and 18 national titles in 24 years of national appearances—yeah, that's a pretty good record, right?). Meanwhile, it's been a long time since USA moviegoers have been treated to a film about a high school sports team at the pinnacle of its success where the morals and character education inherent in the film infuse the story with genuine purpose and meaning without unnecessary religious overtones that automatically alienate a certain percentage of teens who are in a time of self-discovery and can tend to shun those ideas that were a part of their upbringing. The film is Forever Strong, directed by Ryan Little from a screenplay by David Pliler. The story is the product of hours of dialog with Coach Gelwix, his asst. coaches, and current and former players. To make the film work, as per the Coach's request that the film not be about him but, rather the success of the team and his players, which one only has to see the film and get to understand him as a person to see why this is the only way he would want it; the writers decided to weave many stories into one that would focus on a particular young man, Rick Penning (Sean Faris) and his unusual journey to the Highland program.

Rick's father, Rick Sr. (Neal McDonough) is a high school rugby coach in Arizona where Rick is also a star player. Unfortunately, Coach Penning's inability to shape his team and his son into true champions are rooted in a bitter past of which few who know him are aware. Rick Jr. is a daredevil with a devil-may-care attitude. He parties and drinks and drugs and tops it off with driving under the influence and getting caught…twice! The second time, he lands his girlfriend, Tammy (Tyler Kain), in the hospital looking like she's going to require some pretty major facial reconstructive surgery and himself in a juvenile detention center near Salt Lake City. He leaves behind a best friend, Lars (Penn Badgley) who's equally into the wrong stuff, and a father who feels he's wasted his time on a son who's never going to amount to anything useful. The judge rules that he will be incarcerated until such time as he is no longer a danger to others or himself. Upon arriving at the detention center, he meets the lead counselor, Marcus (Sean Astin) who immediately put the rules in place. Rick, of course, doesn't like rules and manages to earn enough bathroom cleaning privileges to cause Marcus to claim the bathrooms have never been cleaner in the history of the center. In the yard, the other guys play touch football, and eventually they ask Rick if he's too good to join in. He declares that he doesn't play football, only rugby. Shortly thereafter, he's teaching them the game, which catches Marcus's attention. Marcus then moves to get Rick a tryout with the local rugby team called Highland and coached by Larry Gelwix (Gary Cole). Of course, he wouldn't be Rick Penning if he warmed up to the idea or the Highland team right out of the gate, but eventually, he does, and the experience will change his life forever. He will finally have a coach that gets him, a team that depends on him, and a lifestyle that’s as much about him developing his character as his rugby skills. All of this work culminates in a brilliant climatic ending that puts a huge twist on the traditional sports team film. To learn more about the plot you'll have to read the spoiler.

Truth be told, this is a pretty astonishing film on many levels. It joins the ranks of Hoosiers and Miracle when it comes to a unique coach, and this one is one of the best I've ever seen, building character through a type of leadership he calls "horizontal" instead of what most coaches use which is a strict, militaristic vertical model. Coach Gelwix develops a level of respect that works its way outward from him at the center in a web of connections between everyone on the team. Moreover, by providing the players with inspirational and motivational letters from past players whose number they now wear, that web extends brilliantly in to the past creating an even greater dimension of tradition. Having once been a part of an exceptionally similar high school program in hockey, with another set of brilliant coaches, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on the astounding achievement of Coach Gelwix, especially in the matter of taking in kids from all walks of life and building them into not just an illustrious winning tradition but men of caliber and honest leadership. Moreover, the film is to be absolutely recommended to all high school coaches and college coaches as well, maybe even some pro coaches who are tired of coaching multi-millionaire prima donnas who've lost their love of the game and claim not to be role models. And, coaches, don't just go see the film, go and then take your team. But be prepared, your team just might expect you to start coaching like Coach Gelwix, and that could be something for which you're not prepared.

As a film and cinematic experience, it's well-made, well-conceived, and the story was able to attract a pretty strong cast. Gary Cole, who's done some dumb roles lately, most notably the silly part in Pineapple Express (hey, I'd have probably signed up for a Judd Apatow role sight unseen myself, I'm sure he learned the hard way), is outstanding in this film. Of course, he'd only have to be half as good as the real coach to be amazing. His performance is understated and reserved, just as it's possible to picture the real Coach Gelwix being. He's always there, and yet, he's often in the distance. He's not a commanding force on the field ordering people around, rather he's on the sidelines, in a lawn chair chatting with a player one-on-one. Then there's Sean Faris. If you don't know this kid, get to know him. Some might quickly pass over him as a pretty-boy actor (and I'm sure he's gotten sick to death of being called that, as if his characters aren't called that enough in his films as well) with incredibly good looks but not much else. And…they'd be very wrong. If you look at just his last two films, Never Back Downand now Forever Strong, this young man (still looks like a kid but he's 26) has had to spend months training in MMA and now had to do whatever it physically took him to prepare for this role as a star rugby player—though the film focuses a lot more on off the field activity than on. In any case, he's in top physical condition and the kinesthetic training and acting is just as critical to his roles as his regular acting chops which just keep on getting better. He's in danger of being a bit type-cast, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in upcoming roles in planned and rumored films: Brooklyn to Manhattan, Ghost Machine, and The Glass Eye.

Sean Faris…get to know him…this dude is outstanding in this film…
Nonetheless, this dude is outstanding in this film—the success of which rests squarely on his shoulders and he, never backs down (no pun intended). Anyone who's ever worked with high school kids, especially teenage boys, will see all of the conflicts and struggles that Sean Faris brings to this role. This isn't something he just whipped up over night from a few acting classes pretending to be a sizzling piece of bacon. This is a complex character. One little secret of how to tell, pay attention to how much you get out of him about what's going on with him from what he never says. Really great actors act with the whole of their essence not just their vocal cords and facial expressions—both of which, of course, cannot be ignored either. He's phenomenal in this movie. It's going to be very interesting to see where he goes in his career, and if he'll be able to transition out of playing the troubled, Outsiders, 'bad boy turned good high school kid' in the next few years, hopefully before he's 30 even if he still looks 18. Maybe there's a good college-aged kid movie for him around the corner as a transition film. Neal McDonough, is it possible for him to play a good guy? Talk about typecast. He'd be like the villain in every episode of "The Bionic Woman". He's pretty great in this film, though, as he plays the conflicted coach father. Penn Badgley has fun with his bad boy role as well playing the little devil sitting on Rick's shoulder constantly getting him into trouble. The other standouts, however, were Michael J. Pagan as Kurt—the kid who inspires Rick to stick with the team; Nathan West as Quentin—the squeaky clean captain of Highland with a dark secret; and Max Kasch as Griggs—the kid who won't shower until the end of the season who provides much of the film's comic relief which it needs given some of the intensity of the drama.

Forever Strong is a powerful and emotional film that has the capacity to resonate with the spirits of troubled young souls searching to find within themselves not just the power to do that which is right, but to live by a different code. A code which Coach Gelwix espouses and has to do with deeper listening. It's as if there's always the right little voice inside us, but we don't listen, we go with the flow, and we end up making a lot of very idiotic decisions—some of which, sadly, are life changers for ourselves and others.

… a powerful and emotional film that has the power to resonate with the spirits of troubled young souls…
Forever Strong is not going to be playing everywhere. So, take the time to seek it out. Be prepared to have it crank up some gears in you that may have gotten rusty, sort of like a tune-up for the mind that may trickle to the body. I think Coach Gelwix would be happy to see a national trend where more and more people grow to believe in the their own potential and bringing out the very best in their teammates.

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Related Products from
Other Projects Featuring Forever Strong (2008)
Cast Members
Gary ColeSean FarisNeal McDonough
Julie WarnerSean AstinPenn Badgley
Michael J. PaganNathan WestMax Kasch
Arielle Kebbel
Ryan Little
David Pliler

Review-lite Forever Strong (2008) [max of 150 words]
Forever Strong is a powerful and emotional film that has the potential to resonate with the spirits of troubled young souls searching to find within themselves not just the power to do that which is right, but to live by a different code. Using interviews with real coach, Larry Gelwix of Highland High School Rugby, writer David Pliler weaved together stories of past players to create one incredibly moving story of a kid whose beleaguered spirit lands in a juvenile detention center and eventually rise to acclaim under Coach Gelwix (Gary Cole). The film's climatic ending forces young Rick Penning (Sean Faris) to reconcile his way of life with a new and stronger code of personal ethics. The resulting film stands above so many others for it infuses the morals and character education into the story without unnecessary religious overtones.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have now seen this movie twice, and I want to see it again. I wish there were more movies like this. I don't even like rugby, but the story is great. Both times I watched Forever Strong the audience clapped at the end (and not because they were glad it was over). I left the theater feeling inspired and grateful for people like coach Larry Gelwix who make the world a better place.

Apparently there are a lot of movie critics who don't like family-friendly movies or movies that teach positive life lessons. They call movies like this sappy or cliche-ish. Hmmm. I have now talked with at least 30 people who saw the movie and without exception they loved it. Granted, some absolutely loved it more than others, but they all thought it was a great movie and they would like to see more movies like Forever Strong.