The first movie in a planned trilogy offers no new story, but its earnestness sees it through.
"Goal! The Dream Begins" tells a standard rags-to-stardom story set in the world of professional soccer. It is constructed of sports movie clichés but built on an unshakable foundation of earnestness.
The story follows Santiago (Kuno Becker), an illegal immigrant from Mexico who plays brilliantly in a Los Angeles rec league when he's not working alongside his father on a gardening crew. Santi's passion for the game impresses Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane), a visiting Englishman and former talent scout for the Newcastle team. Glen plants the idea that Santi could have the talent to win a spot on his old team, a notion that outrages Santi's dad, who favors the more attainable goal of starting a father and son lawn service.
The film tracks Santi's pursuit of his dream through a Dickensian wealth of setbacks, victories, complications, coincidences and colorful personalities. Director Danny Cannon gives his adventures life and driving energy, and Becker makes Santi such a sincere and appealing figure that each new cliffhanger has you crossing your fingers for him; he's the most appealing underdog since Rocky Balboa.
Glen arranges a professional tryout for Santi -- if he can make it to England, a complicated matter for a kid with little money, no passport and a disapproving father. When he arrives, his tryout takes place on a muddy field in a rainstorm such as no Los Angeleno has ever seen.
The audition ends in grimy disaster, but Santi never quits and there is always someone on hand to argue the eager kid's case. The rookie's heart impresses even the team's spoiled playboy star, Gavin Harris (Allesandro Nivola).
After a few nights on the town together, Santi warns Gavin that he's squandering his talents, and their careers could be cut short at any moment. "We're one tackle away from being busboys," Santi says, with the conviction of someone who has had that thankless job. The message isn't wasted, one of several charming spontaneous developments in which stock characters develop into believable people whose characters have unexpected facets.
"Goal!" is the first chapter of a trilogy, and it's a safe bet that a lot of fans will turn out to cheer Santi over the next couple of seasons.
The setup: An amateur soccer ace from Los Angeles auditions for England's Newcastle football club.
What works: Kuno Becker has an irresistible sincerity as the rookie, and the story percolates with colorful characters and complications.
What doesn't: There is also a large helping of sports-movie clichés.
Great line: A slick sports agent rings off his phone with the line, "What's cool and hangs up?"
Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content, language and a brief drug reference.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186