The 5th Quarter: Movie Review

This real-life football story fumbles the ball at every decisive juncture.

Someone throw a penalty flag at this maudlin football drama from director-screenwriter Rick Bieber.

In The 5th Quarter, the filmmakers’ hearts are in the right place but the execution couldn’t be more wrong-headed. At every crucial juncture, writer-producer-director Rick Bieber turns a potentially affecting true-life story into an overly emotional yet under-dramatized account of a family facing the death of a young son. Significantly, he never makes up his mind whether he wants to make a cogent narrative about life and death — or an info-mercial.

As such, the film is an uncomfortable fit in multiplexes. The small screen is more tolerant of films determined to be “inspirational” yet lacking the tools to achieve that goal.

The story revolves around a tragic car accident in February 2006 that claimed the life of 15-year-old Luke Abbate of Marietta, Ga. While his death tore the family apart, his older brother Jon (Ryan Merriman), a superb linebacker on Wake Forest University’s football team, dedicated the following season to Luke, even switching his uniform number to No. 5 in honor of his brother’s high-school jersey.

Motivated by Jon Abbate’s insistence he was “playing for two,” the normally lackluster Wake Forest team turned in its best season in school history. The Abbate family went on to form the Luke Abbate Fifth Quarter Foundation to raise awareness about reckless teenage driving and the life-saving gift of organ donation.

Faced with a naturally structured story that resonates with issues about family, mortality and the challenge of adversity, Bieber opts instead for a series of “plugs” that may or may not reflect how the film got funded.

Throwing the entire narrative out of whack, the first half hour of a 97-minute film dwells on the details of Luke’s death so the film can lecture on teen reckless driving and produce many scenes involving organ donation, even dragging in an unrelated character in another part of the country, who will eventually receive Luke’s heart.

The plugs continue as Jon shrugs off depression and drinking to train intensely at Steve Uria’s Eclipse studio in Atlanta, with Uria playing himself and the brand Eclipse in nearly every scene. The biggest plug is reserved for Wake Forest itself, the team and the institution, which you’re told many times is a “special place,” a sentiment no doubt shared by the alum and booster who came aboard as the film’s exec producer.

None of this would matter that much had Bieber not allowed the plugs to throw his narrative out of joint. But hospital scenes, then funeral and lengthy testimonials mean little to an audience that doesn’t know the deceased. A few early scenes involving Luke (Stefan Guy) are too fleeting make any impression. Much worse though is the portrayal of his family.

Introducing characters under extreme emotional stress does nobody any favors. While Aidan Quinn (as the father), Andie MacDowell (as the mother) and Merriman are veteran actors, their overwrought scenes make their characters come off as a family of hotheads, screaming at police, doctors and nurses, chewing out a neighbor or causing a drunken scene in a restaurant.

Somewhere in all this the real story got completely lost, that being (one would think) how a young man confronts his brother’s death and turns it into a challenge to better himself and in so doing motivated an entire team. A football TV commentator at one point declares Jon Abbate is the “spiritual leader” of his team. But you never see this. Rather he and his teammates sit around over pizza and beer talking about how “inspirational” he is, a scene with artless dialogue you cannot imagine being uttered in real life.

Bieber’s mauldin script must use that word or some variation a dozen times along with rah-rah talks from coaches and other sports clichés that play like Saturday Night Live skits. (One about Eskimos and Texans will induce either winces or sustained titters.)

Then there are those missing key scenes. The parents apparently have a falling out in the year following their son’s death but none of this occurs on camera. Bieber would rather show them in the stands, jumping up and down every time Wake Forest scores. Another son wavers about going to law school but this subplot is dropped completely.

Relationships between Jon and his girlfriend (Jullian Batherson) or between him and his teammates go largely unexplored. Meanwhile, other characters hang around the periphery without ever playing significant roles.

While the film takes advantage of locations in Winston-Salem, N.C., and in and around the university and its football stadium, the football footage looks like highlight films on the nightly news. Mostly, a few staged scenes with the actors on the field or in the stands get mix in game footage from the 2006 championship season. You want to throw a penalty flag — early and often.

Opens: March 25 (Rocky Mountain Pictures)
Rocky Mountain Pictures/Angel City Pictures
Cast: Aidan Quinn, Andie MacDowell, Ryan Meriman, Michael Harding, Stacy Earl, Matt D. McGrath, Stefan Guy
Director-screenwriter-producer: Rick Bieber
Executive producers: Alan Cohen, Bob J. McCreary
Director of photography: Craig Haagansen
Production designer: Sophia Madalana Martinez Moore
Music: Andy Mendelson
Costume designer: Deborah Latham
Editor: Mark Conte
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes