Lucky Bounce

How a neophyte Seattle director stumbled into making a surefire, lump-in-your-throat sports documentary. But would you give up seven years of your life for a deal with Miramax?

It's on the rim! It might go in! It might fall out! There's no time left on the shot clock! It's anyone's ball game!

Because basketball—like all sports—depends on that certain ineffable quality of luck, there is a beautiful cruelty to the game. The best team doesn't always win. The underdog doesn't always prevail against the odds. You can train all your life for a free throw that clangs off unforgiving iron. And your tears, particularly the tears of Roosevelt High School's varsity girls basketball team, don't mean a goddamn thing.

There are plenty of tears in Ward Serrill's The Heart of the Game (see Sheila Benson's short review). And blood. And bruises. And punctured egos. And a felony that made local headlines, sending a man to jail. And another court case that loomed over a state championship game two years ago—one that determined not only the outcome of a school rivalry (Roosevelt versus Garfield) but also the fate of a star athlete and the fortunes of a first-time feature director. (Spoiler alert: If you don't follow high-school sports or girls' basketball, I'm not going to tell you which way that game went. But if any blabbermouth hoops fan starts to mention this must-see movie, which opens after SIFF on June 14, tell them to shut their pie-hole.)

Oh, and another thing—when that final free throw rolls, you may find yourself crying, too. I'm not going to say Roger Ebert— he, mighty champion of Hoop Dreams—got all weepy about it at Toronto last fall, but the big guy clearly loved the movie, and even the most jaded, jock-averse Seattle art-house filmgoer is bound to feel the same way.

THE IRONY IS that Serrill was prepared to quit filming even before he met his leading lady, Darnellia Russell. "I was gonna make a film about just one year, just one season," he explained during a recent sit-down after returning from enthusiastic screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival. He had his movie, he thought, simply by profiling Roosevelt's "court jester" of a head coach: UW tax professor Bill Resler, who'd taken the job almost on impulse in 1998, when the squad was in the cellar of the Metro League. The two men met at a party, Serrill adds, and Resler—divorced with three grown daughters—was such an animated madman that Serrill tagged along, a video crew of one, to document Resler's surprisingly successful first season.

A Seattle native who originally trained as a CPA, Serrill had only then recently returned from 14 years in Alaska, much of it spent in tribal villages. He recalls: "Up in Alaska . . . I got into theater work—writing, directing, acting. I started to do some small video documentaries up there. Just a whole Mad Hatter approach to things. When I came back down here [in 1996] . . . I started to do commercial work. (Today he's also a principal at Seattle's Pyramid Communications, which specializes in nonprofit and progressive-oriented media.)

Quiet and laid-back himself, Serrill enjoyed watching the voluble Resler scream like Cecil B. DeMille on the basketball court. "He really creates scenes," Serrill says of that first year. "He has this ability to get girls to work their asses off and to laugh and have fun. His secret of coaching and teaching is that the kids never know what's coming next. That's how he keeps their attention. Teenagers are tough. They'll size up an adult in 30 seconds and decide they're boring. He has a gift for getting inside the teenage mind. He plans like crazy, but when the moment is there, it seems spontaneous."

Fine for a short profile on public TV, maybe, as Serrill now admits: "I was there at the beginning of season two to get some pickup footage . . . and Darnellia walked into the gym. Darnellia had this presence, where I couldn't stop filming her. You watch her play basketball—this is like God-given talent. She was the best in the gym, and everybody knew it. And it was like, 'I've been waiting for you.' Year two stretched to three to four. . . . " Serrill kept filming.

Unlike the garrulous Resler, however, ninth-grader Darnellia had an aloof, Garbo-like star presence that could put her at odds with coach and teammates (most of them white and more privileged than she, a resident of the Central District). "She had . . . a certain defiance. She didn't talk to me for two years. That intrigued me. She seemed to have a deal where I could film her as long as I didn't talk to her." (Interviews later followed after he spent time with her warm and quotable family.)

GREAT, SO WE havea first-time director filming himself into debt. One character who talks too much, and another who talks too little. But there was plenty of conflict between the two (Darnellia frequently missed class and later dropped out of Roosevelt), and some interesting side stories. Finally, Serrill thought, "I've been here four years. Sorry, [the film] doesn't have a happy ending. I started to wrap it up after season four and actually get it ready to submit it to Sundance. Which I did, and they kicked it back to me, and I'm very happy about it!"

Note to future filmmakers—getting rejected from Sundance or SIFF or any other festival can be a blessing. Here's why, in Serrill's case: "Seven months later, I got a call from Bill [Resler] who said, 'Darnellia's going back to school.' And I went, 'Holy shit, Act 3 has begun.' It's clear in the movie that we have hitched our wagon to this girl's story."

The result is a mightily entertaining film that doesn't foreground issues of race, class, and the specific social pressures faced by minority teen girls. This is intentional, Serrill explains. "If I just talk about Darnellia's circumstance . . . to me, people fill in enough [social context]." Through several drafts of voice-over scripts, he recalls, "When I did write in heavier stuff, it did seem didactic, preachy."

Heart has its unmistakable socioeconomic subtext, much like Hoop Dreams, to which it will inevitably be compared. Serrill praises that movie, and the lively, cause-oriented filmmaking of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. "It doesn't have to be that documentaries are sober and serious," he says. Unlike those directors, however, Serrill opted—except for one interview—to keep himself off camera, to let the story unfold without interjecting himself.

Also citing the documentaries of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost), which served as a kind of self-tutored film school for him, Serrill remembers asking himself, "How could they possibly have come onto a story? They didn't know how it was gonna come out. And all this lucky shit happens. And I'd go, 'How could that possibly happen?' And then it happened to me!"

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