Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ —this is the first commandment with a promise: so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent… Revelation 3:2-3a
If Robert Duvall’s Buck Weston were your father, you would find keeping the Fifth Commandment, quoted above by the apostle Paul, extremely burdensome. Regarding himself as the center of the universe, he always lets his son Phil (Will Ferrell) know that he can never live up to his level of competence. (Thus one could regard this film as a comic version of The Great Santini, one of my favorites of the many excellent films Duvall has graced.) When Phil comes to tell his father that he is going to be married, Buck trumps his son by introducing him to the luscious young thing he will be wedding. When Phil’s son is born, there also is Buck, proudly pointing to his new son in the same hospital nursery—and of course, Buck’s is bigger. Buck is strong and athletic, and Phil is strong, but his clumsiness prevents him from being a good athlete. Thus Phil is filled with resentment, but his gentle nature leads him to repress his rage, until—
It all begins at a kids’ soccer game on the day when Buck trades Phil’s bench-warming son Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) to the last-place team in the league. It was bad enough that Buck always played his own son, but never his grandson. Now poor Sam is part of a team so bad that their coach has fled, leaving the hapless 10 year-olds leaderless, and thus about to forfeit a game. None of the other parents, including a female couple that the somewhat naive Phil is slow to recognize as to their sexual preference, is willing to take on the job, so Phil agrees—and, the team loses ingloriously to his father’s team. Will vows to Buck that the team—misnamed The Tigers (Pussy Cats would be a more apt one) will come back and compete successfully for the season championship. The stake agreed upon is the prize Pelee soccer ball that Buck caught years earlier at a soccer match.
From watching a score of kid sports films (The Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks, etc.) we know the outcome. It is the getting there that makes this little escape comedy such fun. Will Ferrell does a fine job in showing a vulnerable man whose long suppressed rage against his father is unleashed upon the ball field—and the film also shows the devastating effects this can have on all concerned. Phil’s coaching strategy consists in securing the services of Mike Dikta, the former Chicago Bears tough coach supposedly Buck’s hostile neighbor, as assistant coach. Then they convince the local Italian butcher to allow his two visiting nephews—both are expert soccer players—to join his team. Now consumed with the desire to beat his father, Will vents his spleen on the boys whenever they fail to “pass the ball to the Italians.” He even makes an outlandish Tiger suit to dress in, as if the sight of him wearing the ridiculous costume would inspire the players. There is also a parallel plotline resulting from Dikta’s introducing Phil to coffee, Phil becoming so addicted to it that he becomes obnoxious and banished from the local coffee shop.
Things get so out of hand, Phil even berating the team’s parents and forcing one weak-willed father who dares to question him to run laps, that he has become as overbearing as his father. Then, like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, Phil “comes to himself,” and—well, go see the film. You will be glad you did. Church school leaders might want to take a group of grade school children to the film (or show it when it comes out on DVD)” there are plenty of issues for discussing.
Caution, the last question might contain a spoiler.
1) How would you describe the relationship between Phil and his father Buck? Compare Buck to other movie fathers. What parenting mistakes has Buck made? Compare him to the father played by Steve Martin in Parenthood; to Duvall’s Bull Meechum in the The Great Santini. Does the film shed light upon your relationship to your own father?
2) The script does not give Kate Walsh’s Barbara Weston, Phil’s wife, a whole lot to do, but when we do see her, what role does she usually take?
3) The film follows the old come from behind formula of the underdog rising to challenge the powerful and arrogant. Why do you think we root for the underdog? How (or where) is this theme woven throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures?
4) How does Phil’s vehement rage affect others? What does it do to him? What is it that brings him to himself? What do you think of his apology to the team and to the parents—a secular form of “metanoia,” of turning around, or of the words in Revelations 3:2? How can his words “I really lost my way” be viewed theologically? (See the “Lost and Found” chapter, Luke 15.)
5) What does Phil’s decision concerning the Pelee ball reveal about his development as a person?