Missing the uprights
Under the Stadium Lights fails to convey effectively either faith or football drama
Under the Stadium Lights, a new film based on the book Brother’s Keeper by Al Pickett and Chad Mitchell, purports to show how faith helped the Abilene Eagles win the 2009 Texas high-school football championship. But this faith-based movie attempts to be all things to all people, and ultimately it doesn’t work for anyone.
As the voiceover says in the opening scenes, “Here in Abilene, we got faith, we got family, and we got football. The holy trinity.” Yikes.
The film begins with the Eagles’ loss in the 2008 playoffs, telling viewers the Eagles won’t have a shot in the 2009 season because too many starters graduated. We’re meant to see this team as underdogs with something to prove. Chad Mitchell, played by Mel Gibson’s son Milo, acts as a spiritual mentor to these young men. When he’s not busy pastoring a church or serving as a police officer or receiving dirty looks from his wife, Chad encourages the players to be their brother’s keeper, and most of the film follows the troubled lives of three of these teens.
Although the movie has some touching scenes, Under the Stadium Lights suffers from uneven production values. The soundtrack is melodramatic. Its narrative is difficult to follow, jumping around from one boy’s hardship to another’s. Acoryé White and Carter Redwood, who play cousins on the team, manage capable performances in spite of the script’s stilted dialogue. Laurence Fishburne has a minor part as Harold the barbecue restaurateur, and he provides the only moments of joy and humor. His presence serves to remind viewers what they’re missing once his brief scenes are over.
But does the film deliver on its promise to highlight Abilene’s dedication to faith, family, and football? Not really.
For a football movie, Under the Stadium Lights contains precious little sports action. The filmmakers interspersed their disjointed narrative with brief television clips of real-life high-school football games. The low-quality footage offers no emotional tension. It’s not until the 80th minute of this 109-minute film that viewers actually see some cinematic football action. The film tries to present the 2009 Abilene Eagles as underdogs, but we never get a reason to believe this undefeated team is struggling on the field.
The only struggles we see are broken families, in spite of the opening claim that in Abilene “we got family.” One player suffers because he aches for an absent father. Another struggles to love his incarcerated mother. A third fights with his brother who joined a gang. Even Chad’s relationship with his wife and daughter is in jeopardy because he’s too busy for his family. The Abilene Reporter-News reported many of Abilene’s residents, after watching an early screening in March 2019, were disgusted with the film because of the unflattering portrayal of their town and families. The film communicates without subtlety that people from broken homes can find family either on a football team or in a street gang.
The church ought to be the place where broken people can find a family, but this faith-based movie has little faith to offer. We get a glimpse of Chad shaking hands at church. One of the team members prays aloud before a meal. Harold leads his restaurant patrons in a rousing chorus of the African American spiritual “Amen, Amen.” Chad tells the teammates they’re doing a good job of being their “brother’s keeper,” but we don’t see evidence of this beyond an occasional “How’s it going?” No one talks about sin, even though the players are surrounded by it. No one mentions redemption, as if the goal of the gospel is to win a state championship. And most startling, no one utters the words “Jesus” or “Christ” a single time, though the filmmakers ensured a PG-13 rating by including a few instances of profanity.
Maybe in Abilene we got faith, family, and football. But one thing this movie won’t have is an audience.
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