When you’re forced to serve up cinematic cheese, a certain enthusiasm in the performance can atone for some of the sins of the screenplay.
That’s the nice way to get into “Fantasy Football,” a kids’ movie about a tech nerd/gamer teen who accidentally rescues her dad’s NFL career, thanks to her mad Madden skillz and a timely lightning strike. It may be cheese, but it’s cheerfully served.
“Black-ish” starlet Marsai Martin plays Kayla, an only child who’s grown up in pro-baller affluence, but pro-baller rootlessness as well. Her dad, the running back Bobby Coleman, once won the Heisman trophy. But he and his well-traveled family have spent twelve years with his journeyman NFL career prone to fumbles, a runner who has “lost a step” in the parlance of TV broadcast booth announcers like Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (as themselves).
But maybe “The Dirty Birds,” aka The Atlanta Falcons, will be different and Kayla and her mom (Kelly Rowland) can finally settle for a while. It’s just that while Bobby (Omari Hardwick, terrific) may have the will, the body and the team know he’s lost “the way.”
“Practice squad” money will keep them in their Buckhead McMansion, but the writing’s on the wall for Bobby, second stringer to the new “star” — the cocky kid Anderson Fisher (Rome Flynn).
Bobby, getting the “You think I’m done (when) I’m just getting started” vibe from his wife, is 30something and bitter.
“That man has the life we were supposed to have,” he complains. Fat contracts, endorsements, fame and the starting job all went to Fisher.
If only he was as nimble as he is on “Madden.” If only nimble-fingered Kayla was controlling his moves on the field, and his end-zone dances after scoring.
One lightning strike that connects Bobby, Kayla and a new copy of the Madden NFL game later, that’s exactly what happens.
The big theme here is selfish parents figuring out it’s supposed to be “all about the kids,” knowing how to let your child have the spotlight and shimmer in it. Because Kayla could be the star designer on a championship high school robotics team. Only she’s burning through Sundays, one Monday night and one Thursday a season running her dad all over the field — controlling him with her game controller.
Elijah Richardson plays the sassy boy on that robotics team who has our girl’s eye, with the other students a collection of colorful or colorless “types.”
Director Anton Cropper, who knows Martin (who produced this) from directing “Black-ish,” gets decent performances out of the off-the-field moments, and he and Hardwick (“Nobody’s Fool,” “American Skin’) have fun making a mockery of the game on the gridiron.
The pacing is entirely too slow to have the Kayla, sprinting between robot battles and her home gaming station (or PC in a closet at school) running Dad’s football frolic play as quick and funny.
There’s no pop or rage to the younger running back’s suspicions about how the old man in the lineup suddenly started out shining him.
And there aren’t more than a couple of laughs mixed in with a couple of legitimately sweet interludes in “Fantasy Football,” when all’s said and done.
But everybody involved puts a cheerful face on things and makes this kids’ film endurable, if not quite passable entertainment.
Cast: Marsai Martin, Omari Hardwick, Kelly Rowland, Rome Flynn and Elijah Richardson
Credits: Directed by Anton Cropper, scripted by Zoe Marshall, Daniel Gurewitch and David Young. A Paramount+ release.
Running time: 1:39