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As a general rule, sports movies tend to cater to a crowd that likes the predictable format, predictable content, and predictable outcome. These films can be fun and emotional, but some viewers avoid the genre because of its, well, predictability. Forever Strong is a sports movie based on true events that fits the mold in many respects. But at the same time, the filmmakers manage to bring some innovations that make this film more engaging and much more thought-provoking than most others of its type.
While avoiding any offensive content, Forever Strong provides a realistic look at the modern world teens have to navigate on their way to adulthood, with an emphasis on character, morality, and living with integrity—get this—outside sports.
For Rick Penning, life during his high school years is pretty straightforward—party, pick up girls, get drunk, get yelled at by his dad, and take out his aggression on the field. Then the next day or weekend comes, and the cycle continues. As a rugby player, Rick is among the stars of his team—a champion of the philosophy that he must hit hard or be crushed, be the strongest or be destroyed. Yet he can’t seem to do anything to get the approval of his coach, who also happens to be his father.
In rugby and in life, “Coach” Richard Penning only seems to care about winning. To him, that means his son must obtain the life Richard failed to get for himself. Thus, Rick is required to be good enough at rugby to become a professional player and faces his dad’s wrath whenever he does anything that might jeopardize that plan. Since Rick can’t seem to please his dad, no matter what he does on or off the field, Rick has given up trying. Still, he is his father’s son, and, as such, Rick has absorbed Richard’s obsession with winning. So aside from having a good time, Rick’s primary goal in life becomes the defeat of his rugby team’s toughest rival club—Highland Rugby.
When Rick’s team goes through a humiliating loss to Highland, Rick hides the damage from his father’s public belittlement at the match by diving into another party. As he drinks and hangs out with his teammates, they join him in the pact to nail Highland Rugby, whatever the cost. But events take an unexpected turn, and Rick suddenly finds himself headed for juvenile detention, with no father to bail him out and no rugby to distract from his emotional pain.
Thinking detention during rugby season is about the worst thing that could happen to him, Rick enters the facility with a chip the size of a brick on his shoulder and an aggressive temper that gets him into more than one scrape. Fighting to survive, Rick has no idea that his life is about to be so impacted by people connected with this facility that he will emerge a different person than the angry young man who entered. He is about to discover what true strength really is, and at the root of that lesson will be an encounter with none other than Highland Rugby.
One original modification to the sports movie pattern can be spotted right away: Forever Strong is about rugby. No, it’s not a well-known or popular sport in the U.S., but rather than limiting the appeal of this film, the uniqueness and unfamiliarity of rugby infuses it with a freshness that’s much needed. Though rugby was picked because Forever Strong is based on true events, this sport is also a smart choice that matches the central character well, while providing elements of risk and suspense every time players hit the field.
Rugby is more rough, aggressive, and intense even than American football or hockey. It’s a harsh game in which players are unprotected and end up bloodied and battered after each match—if they survive till the end. With a sport like that as the focus of this film, viewers might legitimately expect Forever Strong to offer little in the way of uplifting or worthwhile content. That’s where this movie surprises the most, delivering a story almost completely devoid of negative elements that ends up being much more about the importance of honor, honesty, and the many other characteristics that mark a person of integrity than about sports.
Yes, there’s enough sports action to please the viewers who are watching for that reason, but there’s also a lot of story and depth for those who aren’t so fascinated with athletics. The attention Forever Strong gives to Rick’s experiences off the field, which include several unexpected twists, allows the story to delve deep into this young man’s character as we watch him come face to face with himself and a better way of living. His journey isn’t easy, but the difficulties are what takes this film into the realm of actual drama, defying the typical fluff of the genre, and grips the audience with a story that has a lasting, impactful message.
The power and interest of this story rests on a strong performance by Sean Faris, in an early lead role as Rick. This talented actor unapologetically sells both his character’s unlikable moments and heroic ones, presenting viewers with a youth full of angst and hurt—a young man whose transformation is realistic and meaningful. Faris is supported in his role by a group of solid actors, several of whom have years of admirable film work to their credits (Gary Cole, Neal McDonough, Sean Astin), and high production values all-around.
The few potentially problematic elements in this film include the party scenes, during which Rick and his friends are obviously intoxicated and drinking more as we see them. In these sequences, teen girls are also shown wearing bikinis. Thankfully, the filmmakers show restraint and don’t dwell on these scantily clad young women (another bikini-clad teen is shown in the background of one other brief scene).The offensive remarks and language that would usually accompany such a movie party scene are also blissfully absent, but some teen drug use is shown. Because of these moments, some semi-graphic accident scenes, and mature themes, Forever Strong isn’t appropriate for young children.
Where this movie does drop the ball is in the lack of foundation for the positive character traits and morality the story espouses. The film fails to root these values in biblical truth or to recognize that they come from God and Christian teaching. This missing link isn’t surprising, but it does mean that the characters shown striving to improve themselves on their own or with the help of other people will ultimately fail in their efforts, unless they learn where the help they really need can be found.
In addition, some of the most positive lessons Rick learns are mingled with an overemphasis on honoring one’s ancestors (or the dead) and an almost ritualistic approach to team solidarity that, at times, gives the impression that Rick’s rugby team is a religion, with the team’s pre-game chant functioning as the players’ prayer.
Nevertheless, Forever Strong takes some big steps in the right direction for uplifting entertainment and the sports genre. Here, the filmmakers resist the usual tricks used to reel in teen viewers, which typically include packing the movie with sex, foul language, teenage angst, and not a trace of moral values. Instead, this story bravely tells the tale of a young man who learns that individual character—not winning or losing—is what defines a rugby team and, more importantly, a person’s life.
Check out these similar titles:
Facing the Giants (Carmel Entertainment, 2006)
The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend (Campbell-Stone Media, 1990)
Reggie’s Prayer (Oregon Pacific Pictures, 1996)