Somewhere along the line, and it’s not clear precisely when, the team gets the idea to dedicate their season to Luke — a kid who they, like us, barely knew. Miraculously, Wake Forest goes from divisional dog to darling, although even in the film’s narrative that success seems to have a lot more to do with the skillful leadership of its coach (Michael Harding) than the spirit of Luke, who is presumably smiling benevolently over the gridiron. There’s occasional lip service paid to Luke’s memory, but in the whirl of big games and against-the-odds heroics, the film seems to lose interest in him, and instead generates its emotional power from the Wake Forest miracle. The stand-up-and-cheer sentiment Bieber seeks never quite gelled for me, but I’m pretty sure there are those in some quarters of this country who will be fist-pumping as those final seconds tick down.
It seems as if The 5th Quarter is two parallel movies, each with its own brand of punch. Quinn, in particular, wrings every emotional molecule from his character: Steven’s hospital anguish is palpable; at the funeral, he’s heartbreaking as he waves off the pallbearers and, alone and sobbing uncontrollably, wheels his son’s coffin from the church. And by the end, when he tearfully presses his ear to the chest of the woman in whose body Luke’s heart is beating, well, you’d have to be heartless yourself to not feel a lump in your throat.
True to Aristotle’s view of cathartic drama, the characters in The 5th Quarter do nothing to deserve their travails, and at the end they are not expected to have learned anything. They endure. They also pray, and although from beginning to end it seems to be their faith that sustains them, that element of their experience seems to be muted — a strange choice for a film that is clearly aimed at America’s Heartland. Then again, when you put things into God’s hands, that can take some of the drama out of life, and drama of the most obvious and over-the-top kind is what The 5th Quarter is all about.