Review: Viridiana Lieberman’s “Born to Play” Charts a Game of Inches

Given the pads and helmets, you wouldn’t know which gender was playing football in “Born to Play,” though you can tell by the field the all-female Boston Renegades play on, which is modest in comparison with their professional male counterparts. The quality of play appears to be as vigorous when a running back finds their cut or a linebacker delivers a punishing hit, but the stands are sparse with spectators and field time, such as it is, is limited by what the league can afford, which is about two hours. As you come to learn in Viridiana Lieberman’s profile of the women who lace up for a true love of the game when it offers next to nothing in return, travel to games isn’t compensated, forfeits aren’t uncommon when rosters depend on players with day jobs, and games have little reach beyond being live-streamed on Facebook.

“Momentum is play to play,” one of the Boston Renegades can be heard saying about how quickly the tide can turn on any given Sunday, but she might as well be referring to the state of female pro football, which Lieberman illustrates as a game of attrition over a far greater arc when the sport that’s well past the point of respectability continues to strive for credibility. Molly, the owner of the Renegades, was a former player and took over only when it appeared that the team’s future was in jeopardy if no one else stepped up, and while passion is never in short supply when many of the players grew up in football families like their male counterparts, the infrastructure and resources to support their dreams isn’t. For her part, Lieberman rectifies this inequity as much as she can in cinematic terms, engaging in an intimate “Friday Night Lights” aesthetic that stays in the present tense where the weekend warriors she captures are given the same slo-mo, metallic glory, with the style inviting comparison between what the women have to work for that the men are naturally privileged with.

After a player is caught watching “A League of Their Own” for entertainment en route to a game in Pittsburgh, you suspect that this could be the source material down the line for a drama about the early days of a maturing league, and when the Renegades’ season is truly unpredictable, “Born to Play” opts for the experiential over a more traditional narrative, placing you in the lives of its players for brief moments of time on and off the field where the variety of women that come to the game for different reasons becomes its driving force. When a coach tries to motivate the team by remarking, “You play for the person next to you,” it would seem to mean as much to those who will be making their way into the locker room after his current set of players leave rather than who’s in there in the moment when his squad have already given so much of themselves, but when the Renegades play as if this moment is all they have, “Born to Play” meets them there in channeling their resilient spirit.

“Born to Play” is now streaming on ESPN here.