Under the Stadium Lights Synopsis: After a crushing defeat ended their prior season, everyone counted the Abilene Eagles out of title contention. Facing doubts and personal challenges both on and off the field, it takes the guidance of their team chaplain and a surrogate father figure (Milo Gibson) for the players to realize what they can achieve when they stand united.
My adoration for sports always gravitates me towards every athletic release, no matter how modest and overly-earnest they end up being. While the genre is certainly a dying breed in contemporary marketplaces (most new offerings like Safety are restricted to streaming), I still believe sport’s films have an untapped ceiling. Iconic efforts like Any Given Sunday and Moneyball analyze their sport’s taxing conditions while connecting to thoughtful conceits about life’s tumultuous sacrifices.
First-time director Todd Randall attempts a similar balance with Under the Stadium Lights, a well-intended football ensemble following the coming of age journey of athletes reaching the end of their high school days. Randall certainly has a pulse on worthwhile ideas, but the painfully cheap and downright inauthentic execution leaves audiences with an unwatchable blowout.
There’s a good film buried amidst Under the Stadium Lights’ after-school special delivery. Screenwriters John Collins and Hamid Torabpour wisely center their narrative around the athletes’ struggles off the field. Between absentee parents and the upcoming reality of their football mortality, glimmers of compelling drama become present. It’s clear the team involved understands the value of sports, as they properly weigh football’s communal power over a series of emptily energetic frames.
Good intentions are sadly the film’s only distinct strength. A majority of the runtime plays out like a poorly cobbled-together Friday Night Lights episode, clumsily dancing between humanistic character beats and roaring speeches without much cohesion. Neither of these elements strikes a genuine chord under Collins and Torabpour’s by-the-numbers screenplay. The characters serve as thankless amalgams of familial poverty struggles, with none of the four central protagonists having their own distinct personalities or agency. For a supposedly moving drama, everything is painted in such broad and simplistic strokes. I never felt like the movie reached authentic platitudes with its characters or world-building.
To put it bluntly, Under the Stadium Lights never defines a reason to exist. I can’t help thinking of all the pertinent and deeply moving real-life stories surrounding athletes’ dual struggles on and off the field. In a world where those stories never see the light of day, why do we need a faux crowdpleaser that only brings Hallmark-level depth and sentimentality to the table? Every story beat feels borrowed from far superior films, while Todd Randall’s director-for-hire effort doesn’t mask the inherent tiredness. Even stars Milo Gibson and Laurence Fishburn are just clearly here for the checks in their barebones roles.
Even as a sports movie apologist, Under the Stadium Lights’ lazy delivery does little to excite or inspire. I’ll always look forward to new sports movies, but hopefully whatever is next in the pipeline brings a lot more to the table.
Under the Stadium Lights releases on VOD and select theaters on June 4th.
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