Directed by Michael Chapman
Written by Michael Kane
Most if not all of the movies thus far in this football marathon have been about either college or pro teams (mostly professional teams of late). This is a curious observation given that high school football is the lifeblood of the sport, even today with how popular the NFL and college football has become, but to overlook this very important level of football for much of the history of the genre seems like a serious oversight. Enter All the Right Moves, which finally moves into the high school football movie genre. As I will discuss as part of this review, high school football is not just essential to the student-athletes, their development as contributing adult citizens and their potential opportunity at higher education, but high school football is also essential to many small towns across America, which is what makes All the Right Moves all the more impactful as it enters that scene not yet explored by the football movie.
Stefen Djordjevic (Tom Cruise) is a promising defensive back for the Ampipe Bulldogs. Ampipe is a small steel town in Western Pennsylvania, the type of town nobody seems to be able to escape. Kids find glory in high school football, then take their turn working the steel mill, destined to remain in the decaying rust belt seemingly for eternity. Stef has hopes of getting out of Ampipe, to play college football on scholarship, to study engineering and have a say in how the steel his town produces gets used. But he finds himself at odds with his stubborn coach (Craig T. Nelson), who himself is trying to escape to the college ranks. Drawn to the dream of greener pastures, Stef must cope with playing the game the right way, and the way he knows how, while juggling life with a girlfriend, Lisa (Lea Thompson), who has her own aspirations, and his brother who was recently laid off from the mill.
Going into this movie, I admit my preconceived notions of it were not great. While I knew of it, and knew Tom Cruise was in it, I didn’t look at it as anything more than a sort of saccharine high school romance with some football in it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. While it is a high school romance with some football in it, the film focuses so acutely on the economic circumstance of the townspeople as to make this a really affecting drama. There are countless small towns across America, even today, where people are stuck. They are stuck in the city because of the economy, they are stuck because of a lack of opportunity. For many, sports are the only outlet, but in a increasingly competitive sport like football, a scholarship to college is anything but a give. These characters must work that much harder to climb out of the city they love so much, the city they hate so much.
There is immense pride in all these characters, and drive. What I found to be surprisingly progressive was the relationship between Stef and Lisa. Usually the jock football player dates the head cheerleader. In this case, Lisa is a band nerd. But there is a scene later in the movie between Lisa and the coaches wife which is surprisingly poignant, as it covers the role of the woman in the life of the men. The coaches wife tells Lisa about her high school beau, and how she doesn’t know what he’s up to now because she went on to live her own life, and found her own happiness with Coach Nickerson. There is a cultural need for so many of these small town high school couples to live forever after together, for better or for worse. As each is stuck in the town in which they grew up, neither is given the autonomy to grow out, to rise above the mundane rust belt life.
The football is good, the acting is good, the scenario is good. I was again very surprised that this was really the first true high school movie in this marathon, and I may be giving the movie too much credit as a result, but there always has to be a first. I plead for you to not simply write off All the Right Moves as “just another high school romance movie”. It is that, but it’s not just another, it’s special in how it explores the pressure and passion placed upon these promising young people to move on, to make a better life for themselves by doing something they love, something they excel at. Not everybody has the talent to do what Stef can do, so for him to not get that opportunity, there would be nothing more cruel.