‘Beautiful Game’ captures spirit of soccer

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“The Beautiful Game,” a new movie starring Bill Nighy and Michael Ward, is about a real international soccer tournament called the Homeless World Cup. Don’t go in expecting documentary realness or grit, however. This is a movie-movie (debuting on Netfl ix on Friday, tidily constructed to leave audiences feeling inspired and uplifted. Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing – verité authenticity has its place but so do well constructed, glossy fantasies that still evoke authentic emotion and get at some essential truths. “ The Beautiful Game,” directed by Thea Sharrock, is firmly the latter. Just managing expectations. The first Homeless World Cup was held in 2003, and in the past two decades, nearly 70 countries and 1.2 million people have participated. And yet, I suspect, its existence might come as a surprise to many (even soccer fans …excuse me, football).

The foundation’s goals are noble, raising awareness for homelessness in major world cities and giving players a sense of pride and community. Colin Farrell, who narrated the 2008 documentary about the games (“Kicking It,” currently streaming on Freevee ) and has since become an ambassador for the foundation, is one of the main producers on the film. Screenwriter Frank Cotrell-Boyce also worked with the foundation and past participants to inspire the characters he’d end up writing. It may be a movie, but it has legitimacy in its bones. If you have a “Ted Lasso” shaped hole in your heart (or, less dramatically, viewing schedule), or are still feeling burned from Taika Waititi’s misfire “Next Goal Wins,” this might just do the trick. Ward is Vinny, a down-on-his-luck dad to a young girl who also happens to be an immensely talented player. But he’s not remotely ready to join any team, even one going to a real tournament in Rome, that has the word “homeless” in it.

Nighy plays Mal, a kind and soft-spoken (except when a ref makes a bad call) football legend who coaches the homeless England team: Nathan (Callum Scott Howells), Aldar (Robin Nazari), Kevin (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Cal (Kit Young) and Jason (Sheyi Cole). They all have stories of how they got where they were, but all are kind and eager and excited to play. Vinny is the stick in the mud, making things tense and awkward at every turn. Essentially, he thinks he’s better than his teammates on the field and off, which of course says more about him than the other guys. While Vinny and the England team are the primary focus, there are b-plots given to Japan, a first-time team full of slightly older players and an ambitious young coach (Aoi Okuyama), America, a woman’s team with a star player (Cristina Rodlo), and to South Africa, the best of the bunch under the leadership of a shrewd nun Protasia (Susan Wokoma).

For an ensemble as big as this, the story does an admirable job of giving most something meaningful to do. It’s not a bad travelogue for Rome either, and it’s also always nice to have a dash of Valeria Golino, who is leading the tournament. Is it a little glossy and sanitized with a jaunty score? Sure. But it also thoughtfully explores themes of redemption, invisibility, pride and sportsmanship without being preachy or condescending. It’s PG-13 rating is a little puzzling – this does seem on the tamer end of the scale and appropriate for most ages. And, not for nothing, Sharrock and her team do a good job of showing just how exciting soccer can be (which is not a feat many movies have accomplished). “The Beautiful Game,” a Netfl ix release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “some language, a suggestive reference, brief partial nudity and drug references.” Running time: 125 minutes. Three stars out of four. – By Lindsey Bahr

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