PG | 1h 27min | Drama, Sport | 28 June 2019 (USA)
The opening sequences of “The Last Whistle” are drizzled with pure Americana, as we see many of the sights, sounds, and symbols associated with the heartfelt and impassioned culture and traditions that surround high school football in Texas.
Football is an especially important sport in Texas. I can attest to that, having spent some time living in cities and towns in Texas during my military and civilian lives. Even after football season officially ends, Texans regularly get together for draft parties, intended for the following year, and even place bets on their favorite players and teams.
Rob Smat, the writer and director of this new football drama, knows this all too well. A native of Texas (before moving to Los Angeles), Smat played football for four years, and you can feel that the film was a passion project throughout its hour-and-a-half running time.
Although infused with Smat’s own insights into the game, the film touches on a much more important subject, which has received little attention—the risks associated with undetected heart conditions.
Actor Brad Leland (best known for his role as Buddy Garrity in “Friday Night Lights”), who plays high school football head coach Victor Trenton, knows a thing or two about Texas football as well. He grew up in Lubbock before moving to Plano, both Texan football hubs. The only thing that prevented him from continuing his career was a serious injury.
“I grew up playing sports and had great coaches. Two of the coaches I had were tremendous and have stadiums in Plano named after them,” said Leland, in an interview with MSN. “My whole life, I grew up a big sports fan but didn’t get to play after high school because I tore my knee up.”
Although Leland’s injury derailed his budding football career, it put him on track for his other passion: acting. Indeed, soon after graduating from Texas Tech, he garnered praise as a talented film actor.
Surprising Intensity on the Field
As the film opens, we are introduced to the gifted coach of a Texas high school team called The Saints. Coach Trenton has been deftly guiding his boys toward a state championship.
The rough-and-tumble aspect of the sport is emphasized early on, and you really get the sense that at the high school level, things are especially intense. These young men clashing with each other across rugged fields aren’t going home to million-dollar mansions, engorged with all of the usual man-toys you see on episodes of “Cribs.”
But denying that these goals aren’t part of many of these high-schoolers’ dreams is pure folly. Sure, some might be there for the love of the game, but many of these kids are practicing to become successful, professional football players, and the film conveys this serious, no-holds-barred tonality perfectly.
The film’s story is told from two very different perspectives that are tied to how things play out as the team advances. Coddled, yet gifted running back Benny Robinson (Fred Tolliver Jr.) has a truly promising future. He goes above and beyond what is required of him on the field and is the coach’s star player.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mark Smith (played by Tyler Perez, “Code Black”). Smith is having problems performing for the team and as a result is relegated to being a bench rider. He has become embittered by his lack of play time and therefore tends to take things out on those around him, including his friends and family.
The two young men’s paths eventually come into conflict. I won’t spoil it here, but one of the Saints’ players dies on-field during a practice exercise. Understandably, the player’s mother takes things especially hard. In the ensuing fallout from the death, she and most of the high school’s faculty members unload much of their anger upon Coach Trenton. They believe that his victory-obsessed attitude is to blame.
Coach Trenton’s solitary home life doesn’t help at all, and even though he is a highly intelligent man filled with passion and drive, his stubbornness gets in his way. Even when his daughter Sarah (played by Sainty Nelsen, “Trolls: The Beat Goes On!”) shows up and attempts to help him see things from a different perspective, he pushes her away. As a result, the crestfallen coach internalizes everything and this leads to matters spiraling out of control.
“The Last Whistle,” then, is a film that touches on sensitive subjects in the sports world. Sure, we as humans are competitive creatures by nature, especially when it comes to sports. But at what cost? Does the safety of the players have to be placed on the sacrificial altar of the “win or go home” attitude? If so, how many deaths is an acceptable number?
Whatever the case may be, the cast and crew have truly altruistic intentions, which should be commended. Not only did they collaborate with the American Heart Association in the making of the film—in order to help raise awareness about over-stressing young athletes—but they also encourage parents to have their kids undergo thorough physical exams in order to detect heart conditions.
As seasoned-actor Leland put it in the MSN interview: “It will help prevent a lot of deaths in sports. This is out there and maybe there’s something we can do to help prevent it next time, but any time a kid who’s just trying to play has that happen, it’s a sad thing.”
‘The Last Whistle’
Director: Rob Smat
Starring: Brad Leland, Fred Tolliver Jr., Tyler Perez
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Release Date: June 28
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5