Movie Review: Prayer for a Perfect Season

by October 25, 2011

by Franklyn Calle / @FrankieC7

In the New Jersey prep basketball scene, there were always  the Hurleys—Bob, the legendary coach at St. Anthony, and Dan, the former head coach at national powerhouse St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark—and then the other guy. That other guy happened to be coach Kevin Boyle of St. Patrick’s. Together the three schools make up, what’s known today in the tri-state basketball world as the “Bermuda Triangle” – due to the triangular shaped proximity between the three programs.

Director Marc Levin, who had just released Brick City, which documents the rough streets of Newark (NJ), was looking to capture a first-hand encounter of the high stakes involved in high school basketball and all the drama and the unforeseen happenings that take place. During the production of the 2009 film, Levin met Father Edwin Leahy, the Headmaster at St. Benedict’s Prep. The school’s basketball program is considered year-in and year-out among the top in nation, with names like J.R. Smith, Corey Stokes and Sarmado Samuels among its alumni. Levin was sold on the idea of chronicling the basketball program when Father Leahy advised him of St. Benedict’s head coach Dan Hurley possibly leaving for the head coaching position at Wagner College. And it was there when Father Leahy suggested that Levin pay a visit to Elizabeth (NJ) and speak with Boyle. “I always wanted to do a real Friday Night Lights of urban basketball,” says Levin. “And I was like New Jersey, ‘Hey, this is the center of the basketball universe right here.’

After speaking with Boyle, Levin was convinced he had found his next film project. “He’s a classic type Jersey character — chip on his shoulder, great guy but everyone is out to get him,” say Levin of the coach. “We immediately hit off.”

Boyle, who at times fell in the shadows of the two Hurleys, actually had a winning record against the two. Yet, he wasn’t ever really given his share of fair dues. Boyle told Levin his team was the perfect bunch for a featured documentary, and Levin along with his production team agreed. The Celtics are constantly among the top teams in every national poll and throughout the years saw Samuel Dalembert, Derrick Character, Corey Fisher, Dexter Strickland, Kyrie Irving, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist earn their way to stardom in that same old small gym. Boyle, who’d been at the Elizabeth school for 23 years, won more than 400 games and had five Tournament of Champions titles under his belt. Kids from all parts of New Jersey and even New York City attended the school just to be part of the renowned program.

And although it made perfect sense to have a star-studded team on the big screen, like the one St. Pat’s featured during the 2010-2011 season, there was once person who would “make or break this project,” as Boyle told Levin. Cindy Richardson.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s mother, Cindy, was appreciative of the attention and interest involved in having her son being part of the documentary, but was hesitant at first and turned down the idea after speaking to the production team. Was she just protecting her son from the already overwhelming attention he was receiving? Was she just making sure that her son stayed focus and finished up his senior year with a bang without any other distractions? Kidd-Gilchrist, a 6-7 forward, was ranked as the top player in the class of 2011. At the age of two, his father was shot and killed in the streets of Camden (NJ), leaving Gilchrist alone with his mother. After producers Karl Hollandt and Binky Brown had a couple of more sit-downs with Cindy and visited during the family’s annual Labor Day cookout, she finally agreed and was on-board with the project.

The filming crew taped over 250 hours of footage, following the team around from preseason up till the day the seniors walked across the stage in their cap and gowns.

“A lot of good basketball films have been made. We wanted to make it so it was as if you were watching a scripted show,” says Levin. “In other words, so that you are living the drama — it’s not looking back, it’s not historical — you’re in the moment and you’re taking the ride with these characters. That was our contribution to it.”

“We wanted to tell an intimate story, follow the lives of the people and let their lives unfold,” adds Hollandt. “Let everyone’s narrative come out and have a film where you get to actually know the kids and all the other characters through the journey.”

Aside from Kidd-Gilchrist, the film also highlights senior shooting guard Derrick Gordon. The 6-3 Western Kentucky commit deals with having to play his final season without his twin brother in the stands, after the latter was sentenced to prison for aggravated assault. In addition, at the beginning of the season Derrick is diagnosed with acid reflux and drastically drops over 15 pounds within weeks.

Kidd-Gilchrist on the other hand has to deal with another family death only hours before he officially signs his letter of intent to the University of Kentucky when his uncle, Darrin Kidd, dies of a heart attack. Darrin, Cindy’s brother, stepped up as father-figure to Michael following the murder of his dad. Darrin was very influential in Mike’s progress throughout the years and subsequently led to the McDonald’s All-American adding Kidd to his last name in his honor.

The film takes us behind-the-scenes into the lives of some of America’s top recruits. Gordon and Kidd-Gilchrist are particularly focused on throughout the 90-minute feature, as we see the adversary and curve balls that life throws at them, and how as teenagers they do their best overcome the obstacles.

The film plot itself evolves around St. Patrick’s quest for a state title and finishing atop of the national rankings. But in their way stands neighboring St. Anthony, which features a couple of their own blue-chippers. In addition, the roller-coaster ride offers us a view into the financial challenges the school faces annually to keep its doors open, and without having to raise tuition dramatically.

When it’s all said and done, it’s the story behind the story that the production team hopes viewers can take away from the film. “They had plenty on the line. All the prestige of being number one in the country and beat their number one rival. But their fraternity, their brotherhood, that’s what sports teaches us all, just discipline,” says producer Ben Selkow. “But what I think these kids learned at the end of the day is just how to support each other and be brothers. And that’s what they’ll carry forward. I hope that’s what the fans take away — sports is about family.  I hope people take away the amount of class this team had being the amount of pressure they were under.”

“For fans of any sport, you gotta look the high school game. Be careful in that. There’s a paradox in that. We gotta look to it as fans because the purity is there, the effort is there, the innocence and the development is there. But we need to do it with some responsibility that we don’t turn it into a complete business,” he adds. “It’s already on that edge but we need to maintain some point of innocence for the kids before it really goes to take some of the business qualities it does as it moves up the ranks. But their intentions and motivations to be there are so pure in just being a kid. When you can tap into that for a moment, that feels really good.”

Prayer for a Perfect Season premieres tonight, October 25 at 9:00 p.m. EST on HBO. For more information on the film, trailers and other playdates, check out the film’s official website.