Alex Morgan has just put out a family film called Alex & Me. SSFC received an advance copy in exchange for writing a review, but if you think we weren’t going to review a movie where Alex Morgan plays an hallucination of herself anyway, then what are we even doing here. Long story short: the protagonist, Reagan, is a 13-year-old who loves soccer and idolizes Alex Morgan, but has two lightly neglectful parents who are completely focused on her football-playing older brother and his college recruitment. Reagan bonks her head while trying to tear down an Alex Morgan poster in a fit of resentment and when she comes to, an hallucination of Alex Morgan appears to train and encourage her.
Athletes doing kids’ films makes for a slightly tricky beast when it comes time for a review. SSFC is, of course, geared towards adult fans of American soccer, but the target audience for this film is probably solidly in the 12-and-under range. So right up front, if you have an 11-year-old at home who loves soccer, this is a sweet, predictable family film about a girl from a mixed-race family who gains self-confidence through learning the value of hard work. Parents might want to have a talk with their kids about concussion protocols afterward (seriously, this child gets two grade 3 concussions in one season and not a single adult takes her to get medical treatment) but it’s otherwise standard feel-good children’s sports movie fare.
What you really want to know is: how good is Alex Morgan’s acting in this movie?
Look, Alex Morgan became an athlete for a reason. Do you remember the early Harry Potter movies, when Emma Watson kind of let her eyebrows do a lot of the acting for her? Which is not to bash 10-year-old Emma Watson, who did pretty well considering the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake if the movie was a flop and also her being, you know, 10 years old. But that’s sort of where Morgan is at in this film - gamely doing her best, but maybe relying on some mannerisms a little too much to carry her through. At one point in my notes I wrote “Ricky Bobby - doesn’t know what to do with her hands.” That’s okay! Immersive, naturalistic acting that effortlessly holds the viewer’s attention is a skill that requires intense practice, and Alex Morgan spent that time working on her acceleration, first touch, and finishing. In the DVD extras, the director notes that Morgan spent a couple of weeks prepping for the role, including hiring an acting coach, which is kind of charming. Clearly she wanted to do a good job and she made an effort. But it’s no surprise that Morgan’s best moments are when she’s actually coaching Reagan with soccer jargon, instructing her on shooting technique or 1-v-1 defending, or just silently being there for her. There’s a very sweet moment when Reagan, disappointed yet again by life, walks by her lonesome down a street until Alex joins her and slings an arm around her shoulders.
There’s also a couple of in jokes that show someone involved with youth soccer had a hand in the creation of this film. The credits list Steve McAnespie as the film’s soccer coach, and he looks to have some connections to the youth soccer scene in the New Orleans area, where this was filmed. The movie digs at overly involved soccer parents who take game footage of their budding superstars, parents who trust a youth coach because he’s British, and the trend of trying to predict lifetime talent in younger and younger players. “Soccer parents are the most gullible people I ever met,” is an actual line. There’s some hints at the disparity between rich and poor kids, although protagonist Reagan lives in an enormous two-story home in a quiet, tree-lined suburb. The players in the movie are also overwhelmingly white, although the movie never remarks on it. In fact it seems like they drew from the local girls’ soccer population to fill in several of the teams, making the movie’s whiteness just another symptom of the larger problem of youth soccer’s ballooning costs to players, which tends to shut out poorer minorities.
Actually, the real story of this movie should be how Reagan, who is 13 at the start of the season and presumably plays U14 soccer, has a NINE-YEAR-OLD teammate who is good enough to hang with other 13-year-olds. In the movie they say they need her to make up the full 11, but this team went from bottom-table to winning a championship (that is NOT a spoiler, you knew this team won the championship the moment you saw the summary) in one season. You don’t do that with nine good field players and one deadweight. Who is this budding Mal Pugh? Will the youth system fail her by letting her slip through the cracks because she couldn’t afford to play on a rich team? Is youth development in the entire area stunted from the lack of proper fields? Even the Fancy team that Reagan’s underdogs have to beat plays on a pretty bad-looking knobbly field, and the league championship, supposedly played on the field where the USWNT trains when they’re in town, looks like a bog standard high school field. Look, I know the film probably didn’t have the budget to film in the Superdome, but the USWNT is not practicing on a...well actually, the WNT getting a shitty practice field might be the most realistic part of the movie.
In the end, Alex & Me kind of reads like grown-up Alex’s letter to her younger self. There’s even a character named “Bug” in the film, referring to Morgan’s own childhood nickname. The Alex Morgan that Reagan hallucinates is the kind of personal role model every kid wishes would pay attention to them. So while Morgan isn’t exactly delivering Meryl Streep vibes, that’s not the point. She made a movie where she plays the person her own 13-year-old self might have needed. For kids, this is a nice, gentle film. For adults, this is probably a fun drinking game in the making. Either way, it’s not the kind of thing that is going to get Morgan roasted 20 years on. Looking at you, Steel.
Alex & Me will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on June 19.