Girls' hoops doc is funny and inspiring, never saccharine. 

The 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams is one of the great films of the past 20 years. The new The Heart of the Game, which similarly follows urban high school basketball through several seasons, isn't. But it might be a better sports movie.

To its credit, Hoops Dreams made you question your fandom. It was unsettling. The less sociological The Heart of the Game is -- as its title indicates -- a purer appeal to basketball fans, perhaps in part due to its crucial difference: It's about girls.

Early in the film, a group of high school boys are interviewed, and they claim that male players just want to score and be seen, while girls play team basketball. This may come off as a bit of a WNBA commercial, but with less money, pressure, and corruption in the girls' game, it does seem easier to keep the focus on the sport itself.

The Heart of the Game follows Seattle's Roosevelt Roughriders and its new coach, tax professor Bill Resler, through six seasons. What begins as a focus on a colorful coach broadens with the introduction of a troubled star player, who enters the program in the second season and whose story arc eventually takes over the film.

With its series of tough losses leading to a big game with the Roughriders' closest rival, The Heart of the Game feels almost scripted at times. But whether the filmmakers got lucky or fashioned this narrative through astute editing is immaterial. The end result is a gripping movie.

And even though The Heart of the Game can be inspirational, it's never saccharine. There's much truth and humor here: It's a great joy watching these girls, all pimples and ponytails, dropping F-bombs and hurling other R-rated expletives in frustration or excitement.

The immediately likable Resler devises a "theme" for each season, such as "Pack of Wolves." During timeouts, we see the girls in a huddle with their coach. Resler chants, "Sink your teeth in their neck!" and each time the girls respond, "Draw blood!" This might sound like the kind of hyper-competitive stuff that ruins kids' sports, but in this case it isn't. Each chant ends with players and coach joining together to shout "Have fun!" Most of the girls are near giggles during this routine.

"What rhymes with 'bass pickin'?" Resler asks his charges late in one game. "Ass kickin'!" one girl chirps cheerfully. "I just saw one," Resler shoots back.

"It's so cheesy," one player says when asked about her coach's motivational techniques, "but I like it. It's so Bill."

I've only got one small complaint about an otherwise enjoyable and invigorating little movie: In packing six seasons' worth of material into 97 minutes, too many potentially interesting elements get short shrift. The Heart of the Game might have been better as a short-run television series, especially since the big screen doesn't enhance its camcorder-quality visuals.

The Heart of the Game

Opening Friday, August 4th

Studio on the Square

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