Review: “Believe in Me” modest effort

By Robert W. Butler: McClatchy Newspapers

Really, there is only one sports movie. Hollywood just keeps fiddling with the details.

Still, when done well a sports movie can provide substantial pleasures.
The blandly titled “Believe in Me” — parts of which were filmed in Clovis and Portales, is one such charmer, a smart, low-keyed real-life melodrama that melds sports movie cliches with a nicely-rendered period setting and a big dose of girl power.

In 1964 basketball coach Clay Driscoll (Jeffrey Donovan) comes to Middleton High School in rural Oklahoma to run the boys squad. He and his supportive wife Jean (Samantha Mathis) are looking forward to Jim’s first gig as a head coach

But it’s not to be. The principal who hired Jim has been incapacitated and the head of the school board, a ruthless small-town Babbitt (Bruce Dern), gives Jim’s job to a crony. The newcomer is told he’ll be coaching the girls team, which hasn’t won a game in living memory.

Clay reluctantly accepts the gig, gradually realizing that playing basketball is the only shred of independence and glory these girls will experience. In just a few months they’ll be sucked into the drab ranks of aproned wives stranded on drought-ravaged farms.

Wanna bet that in his first season he takes his ladies to the championship game?

As written and directed by Robert Collector, “Believe in Me” feels absolutely right, from the insular atmosphere of a tiny burg to the naivete of country kids mightily impressed to be sharing a motel room with a color TV. Hair styles, clothes, even the drapes in the Driscolls’ living room are dead on. And the faces…the movie is a virtual Dorothea Lange album.

The crises faced by Coach and his girls aren’t exactly life and death, but they tug at the heart. Clay’s best player (Alicia Lagano) is forced to drop out by her religious Neanderthal of a father. Clay and Jean, meanwhile, are dealing with their own sorrow — Clay is sterile. And of course there’s the ongoing struggle against sexism.

The performances are solid and Donovan, the star of the short-lived TV series “Touching Evil,” is quietly spectacular, perfectly capturing the frustrations of a ’50s-era male sinking in a sea of adolescent estrogen.
The stunned, deer-in-the-headlights expression he presents whenever confronted with yet another incomprehensible (to him, anyway) display of female tears is hilarious and oddly touching. A scene in which he must serve as midwife to a pregnant former player in an isolate one-room shack provides a rare moment of high drama in this modest film.

Did I say modest? Well, yes, it’s not a big-budget effort dripping with star power. But “Believe in Me” carries a hefty emotional clout. Over the final credits we see footage of the real Clay Driscoll, many years retired from coaching, being reunited with the women (now gray-haired grandmas) who played on his first team.

Even seasoned sports-movie junkies may find themselves groping for a hankie.

3 1/2 stars