Written by: Matt Patti | June 3rd, 2021
Under the Stadium Lights (Todd Randall, 2021) 1½ out of 4 stars.
I’ve always been a sucker for a good inspirational football movie; football is my favorite sport to watch and I’m an avid Baltimore Ravens fan. I find it intriguing how real-life events in sports can often lend themselves to telling a compelling story. So many remarkable runs, upsets and unbelievable efforts are chronicled in sports, and I believe that football represents the pinnacle of these phenomena. Each single game is so important, more so than single games in most other sports due to there being significantly fewer games in a football season than in most sports’ seasons. Therefore, a single game in football has a huge, lasting, dramatic effect on a team and a city. What most fans do not experience, however, are the struggles and challenges that the players on a team face off the field. Many great, classic football films expertly present these obstacles and accomplish a moving drama that lasts in the audience’s hearts. However, no matter how inspiring a story may be, or what big-name stars sign on for a film, if the film itself does not tell said story effectively, the film will falter. Unfortunately, such is the case with Under the Stadium Lights. It’s a moving tale, but a poorly executed film.
Under the Stadium Lights tells the story of the 2009 Abilene Eagles, a high-school football team from west Texas. In 2008, the Eagles went 10-0 in the regular season but were dismantled in a crushing defeat in their state championship game. Now, the very next season, morale is fittingly low. What’s worse, many of the players are currently dealing with personal problems, family issues, and even downright tragedies in the midst of their goal to get back to the championship game. It will take the team’s chaplain, Chad (Milo Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge), and a popular community figure who acts as a father to the team, Harold (Laurence Fishburne, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) to unite the players together and help them achieve their dreams.
I had high hopes for this film, and figured it would be difficult to screw up an inspirational tale such as this. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Almost everything in this film fails, save for the story, itself. The characters are dull and uninspiring, specifically Milo Gibson’s Chad, who is as stiff as a tree and hardly sheds an ounce of emotion throughout the entire film. He is hardly the inspiring leader that the script makes him out to be. The other performances are not great, though Laurence Fishburne is exceptional as Harold, his performance standing out, like a diamond in the rough, strikingly above the others. The rest of the cast have little chemistry with each other, thanks in part to rarely sharing the screen with one another. The film spends most of its time delving into individual players’ struggles at home, but with rushed dramatic sequences and subpar acting, they do not yield an emotional response from the viewer.
Sadly, the underwhelming performances and disappointing characters are only one part of the film’s issues. Technically, the film is a mess. There are unnecessary and distracting jump cuts used in a few scenes, some audio issues and low-grade cinematography, and second-rate editing. The most frustrating issue, though, is the filmmakers’ choice to use what I assume to be actual game footage from the Abilene Eagles’ 2009 season. Not only is the footage grainy and of poor quality, but the shots are reminiscent of a SportsCenter highlight reel with no cinematic quality to them whatsoever. Even worse, when we finally see the characters in the film out on the field in cinematic shots near the end of the film, it is interspliced with the old footage of the actual team, to atrocious results. Many of the plays from the actual game that they attempt to replicate do not look similar at all, and the players even wear different numbers in the cinematic shots than the actual players wore in the real game, further baffling the viewer. The opposing team’s quarterback, for example, wears a different number in the cinematic shots than the actual game footage, which is painfully obvious and incredibly distracting.
Overall, Under the Stadium Lights takes a powerful story and strips it of all its goods. There are a select few emotional moments, specifically a tense gang scene, and Laurence Fishburne steals every scene he is in (though that is not many). However, with lazy filmmaking, erroneous cuts, technical blunders, lackluster characters and ineffective, rushed drama, Under the Stadium Lights fails in its attempt to let the true story of the ‘09 Abilene Eagles shine. As interesting of a story as that is, and as intriguing as it might be to see unfold, the film’s deficiencies weigh it down and ultimately switch off the audience’s attention, just like the stadium lights at the end of a football game.