By Michael Koresky | Indiewire September 23, 2008 at 5:14AM
Ryan Little's "Forever Strong" is a friendly, heaping helping of rugby porn -- in senses both erotic and non. Seemingly cast top to bottom with holdovers from "Flaunt" photo-spreads and David DeCoteau flicks (in fact, fans of DeCoteau's boxer-brief brand of cheapo-homo horror will recognize the film's lead, Sean Faris, from his debut in DeCoteau's Blockbuster Video fave "The Brotherhood 2: Young Warlocks"), "Forever Strong" is a charming enough paean to muscle shirts, athletic shorts, and Faris's beauty mark.
Yet what really gets its tent rising is the sport itself, which the film nearly breaks a blood vessel trying to recoup as the pastime of choice for rugged young American men. Dare you cross one of "Forever Strong"'s rugby enthusiasts and they'll unleash a verbal tirade: "Actually Americans ripped off rugby, then added sissy pads and helmets," Faris's Rick Penning angrily corrects a bunch of his fellow inmates at the facility he's sent to after his second DUI conviction. And later, the film's token friendly (white) Rasta dude happily instructs a tyke on the side of the road: "Soccer is for kids. Football is for wussies. Rugby is for men."
Little's got an arsenal of post-"Friday Night Lights" techniques to hammer home the message: This ain't your nineteenth-century fop's "fute ball." As the opening theme song blares with all the power of a "Transformers the Movie" anthem, "Are you ready . . . or not?!" Hell, yeah, dude, we're ready: for that unholy mix of slow-motion and slowed-down frame rates that have overtaken action filmmaking; for those nattering little surveillance zooms that intimate some sort of documentary realism for no discernible reason; for rock dirges blaring on the soundtrack; for crazily overbaked low angles of balls sailing into the air and players thudding to the ground; for troubled teen Rick to spit in the face of his big, black opponent (later dubbed a "yeti" by some of Rick's teammates); for coach Gary Cole to shout "Get in there!" with unmistakable conviction; for "Gossip Girl" star Penn Badgley's wildly misguided tuft of manicured chin hair.
And hell, yeah, dude, some of us are also ready for Faris's unceasingly eye-catching wardrobe of this fall's line of skimpy sportswear, lit like Grace Kelly's nightgowns; gratuitous scenes of high schoolers (played by mid- to late-twentysomethings all) lounging poolside in swim trunks; for an almost complete disinterest in the female sex -- Rick's first girlfriend is unceremoniously catapulted into a wire fence thanks to his drunk-driving negligence, and a later, pouty-faced love interest, Emily (Arielle Kebbel), is hardly ever shown away from the bleachers, cheering Rick on.
This is guy territory, as evidenced not only by the strictly male environments of Rick's rugby team and juvenile detention lockdown, but also a subplot involving an intensely conflicted history between Rick's dad/coach (Neal McDonough) and Gary Cole's rival school coach, Larry. After Rick is allowed to leave his prison temporarily to play for Larry's morally righteous band of rugby misfits and learns to go on the straight and narrow thanks to Larry's more nurturing paternal presence and a philosophy of sportsmanship that makes room for reading to sick children and chanting in Maori (but, alas, no drugs, alcohol, cheating, lying, or promiscuity), he ends up playing on the opposing team from his own father.
Thoroughly resolvable issues ensue, played in appealingly by-the-book fashion by actors who have no delusions of grandeur. Faris, last seen in this year's similarly titled "Never Back Down," is ever the game superficial heartthrob (he flips competently between anger and "aw-shucks" naivete), and Cole, as always, manages to fully invest himself without ever seeming like he's taking the work even remotely seriously. Every genre plot point may fall in place with asinine precision, but I'll still take this glorified public service announcement over garbage from self-styled indie provocata-turds like Alan Ball and Neil LaBute. Would you rather watch "Towelhead"'s close-up of a thirteen-year-old's blood-stained panties, or "Forever Strong"'s adoring peek at Sean Faris doing sweaty, shirtless sit-ups? Moviegoers, pick your poison.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]