Of all sports movies, the subgenre with the fewest entries but highest percentage of overall quality is high school football.
With just 16 such titles identified on IMDb.com, six of them—“All the Right Moves,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Remember the Titans,” “The Blind Side,” “Varsity Blues,” and “School Ties”—are all excellent, and the lone documentary, “Undefeated,” went on to win a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award.
Hard TimesFounded in 1920 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, St. Bernard’s is a coed, multiracial Catholic school, which like four other parochial high schools in North County had fallen on hard times. In 2000, the enrollment exceeded 500, a number that dwindled to a mere 143 in 2018, and dropped to less than 100 in the spring of 2019.
The Diocese of Worcester, the arm of the local Catholic Church that provides funding to the school, informed the administrators and staff that the school would be closed at the end of the school year. It is worth noting that the tuition per student per year is $8,550, and as with all churches in the area, the school is required to give 10 percent of its entire income to the diocese.
This news was received as more-than-shocking by everyone, but no one more than Tom Bingham, the owner of a generations-old lumber mill and coach of the football team since 2001. Only months earlier, Bingham led the team to the state championship—its first since 1997—and did so with the smallest (both in player size and numbers) of any school in the state.
A Sliver of HopeThe diocese did provide the slightest glimmer of hope to Bingham, Anderson, their staff, teachers, and students. If they would boost enrollment to at least 100 and raise enough money ($1 million) over the next 30 days to guarantee operating costs in the upcoming year, St. Bernard’s could remain open.
Like so many small towns across the land, the citizens of Fitchburg (secular and parochial alike) make heavy emotional investment in student athletic programs. Almost immediately, Anderson and the PTA realized that fundraising would be contingent on the probable success or failure of the upcoming football season—one that might not even be played.
Adding to Bingham’s already monumental challenge was the fact that he’d lost eight players to graduation and would have to include incoming freshman on his squad, which would eventually number only 26—barely half of the national 45 player average.
For those unaware, St. Bernard is the patron saint of mountain climbing, and it became more than a metaphor for everyone involved in keeping the school financially solvent.
Looking Down From AboveSporting high-end (for a documentary) graphics and photography, the movie has a polished but never overly slick look. The use of drone cameras is particularly intriguing as they provide a “big-picture/God’s-eye” view of the community and its citizens, salt-of-the-earth people who unapologetically subscribe to traditional values and who believe the collective is much greater than the sum total of its parts.
As tense and nail-biting as any modern thriller, “AIMSB” is also a “truth is stranger than fiction” type of story that, if pitched to a studio, would be deemed impossible to believe; hence, the word “miracle” in the title. My sole complaint (and it is minor) is the backing score, which never seems to take a break.
You don’t have to be Catholic or a sports fan (or even an optimist) to appreciate everything contained within the frames of this film.
In this week leading up to Christmas, “AIMSB” (available on Amazon Prime) would make for a worthy alternative to the familiar holiday-themed titles in your library. Although it’s not about Christmas, it is uplifting, inspirational, and family-friendly. It will leave you feeling better about your fellow man, and maybe prove that there “ain’t no mountain high enough.”