Child’s play

Will Ferrell's back, and Helen Duff takes a look at his latest effort, Kicking & Screaming

Imagine if film genres were ranked, according to goodness, as football divisions. Allowing for the fact that mafia sagas and Vietnam epics would probably be tussling for Champions League spots – and that anything with Billy Crystal in it would be propping up League Two – American “soccer” movies would be groping for credibility within the Sheffield and Hallamshire Girls County League.

Over the years, Hollywood has downgraded its use of football – from interestingly confused war metaphor (1981’s Escape to Victory) to drearily repetitive plot vehicle. The result has been some films of arresting direness: 1992’s Ladybugs was about an underdog team of young misfits who become champions thanks to their offbeat coach. Three years later, The Big Green told the by-now familiar story of an underdog team of young misfits who become champions thanks to their offbeat coach.

Soccer Dog (1999) injected novelty by making the underdogs in question actual canines, but even this innovation was quickly standardised as Air Bud: World Pup (2000) exhausted the quadruped/ball skills interface. Say what you will about their shortcomings, but one of the continuities of American football movies has been a selfless refusal to place intellectual demands on the viewer.

Those Brits who went to see Kicking & Screaming forked out their cash, therefore, in the same frame of mind that our forebears might have turned up to watch a public execution. With a forbidding premise (an underdog team of young misfits acquires – wait for it – an offbeat coach) it looked unlikely to reveal itself as a sophisticated depiction of the psycho‑physical complexities of modern football. Nor did the heavy reliance on American child actors bode well for those of us whose main quibble with Home Alone was that the burglars didn’t take guns – but, happily and surprisingly, Kicking & Screaming turned out to be a film replete with resonance, verisimilitude and allegorical depth.

Well, kind of. In accordance with convention, the unorthodox but ultimately effective manager is central to the plot – but, in this case, Will Ferrell’s turn as an affable, goofy, eagerly inept coach rings poignantly true: enough, in fact, to draw moist-eyed recognition from fans of Kevin Keegan everywhere. Almost as uncanny is the movie’s engagement with the rumbling issues that polarise football on this side of the Atlantic. Is it better to warm the bench with a good team or get match experience with a tosh one? Kicking & Screaming might moot this dilemma via the plight of a nine-year-old boy with moptop hair and a cute overbite, but it nevertheless works on a metaphorical level as a Joe Cole biopic.

A subplot about the Oedipal complexity of competing with one’s father’s reputation – Ferrell’s character’s dad is a rival coach – may ensure that Nigel Clough gets bought the DVD for Christmas, while reflections on the invidious effect of unbridled competition upon the true heart of sport speak to the soul of anyone being asked to pay unforgivable Premiership admission prices.

What all this proves is that – even if Hollywood still remains reluctant to engage with football as anything other than entertainment for kids – at least its formula is now so polished it serves as a mirror for our own game. The alternative explanation is that all the previous filmic dross we have endured from the States from has just radically managed our expectations. Either way, you should know that Kicking & Screaming, while better than expected, remains not a patch on Soccer Dog 2: European Cup.

From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month