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By Pete Vonder Haar | December 18, 2007

The “mockumentary” is a genre largely past its sell-by date, and takes a sure hand to keep an audience interested past the initial joke. “4th and Long,” which follows a handful of fanatical high school football enthusiasts, isn’t quite there yet, but it shows promise beyond the obvious shoestring budget.

The three primary characters are all devoted to the New Hanover High Wildcats. They include “the Chuck” (Mark Darby Robinson), a 50-year fan who grapples with the not-quite accidental demise of his wife and an unhealthy obsession with Sonny Jurgensen; Nathan Dansby (Chris Blanchard), the disgraced ex-coach who utilizes his love of football in his chosen profession: stripping; and Larry Dowd (Keith Minor), who releases the pent-up aggression he stores up at his librarian job by losing his s**t at the games. These guys are pretty dim, and cartoonishly deranged for the most part, but anyone who’s grown up in a town that loves its high school football will recognize the old weirdo who yells advice to the players outside the practice field or paints his car the school colors.

Each of the three erroneously views himself as somehow contributing to the team, but when news comes out that New Hanover is planning on eliminating football for budget reasons, they find common ground in searching for a way to keep it from happening.

For starters, the idea that a high school below the Mason-Dixon line would eliminate football is roughly as plausible as my becoming the next Pope. But we’ll let it go for plot expediency. A bit more worrisome is the amount of time it takes to get things in gear. By the time Chuck and Larry (no relation to the unfortunate Adam Sandler movie of the same name) unite to save the team, the movie’s half over.

But the script has an easygoing, improvised feel to it, and hits the mark more often than not, and the cast is perfectly believable. Admittedly, the whole endeavor could use a little tightening up, but its heart is obviously in the right place. “4th and Long” convincingly demonstrates what – to paraphrase Larry – a “meaningless shell of nothingness” our lives would be without high school football. I’m curious to see what director Tim Vandenberg will do next.

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