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Native girls find themselves through lacrosse in 'Keepers of the Game'

Native girls find themselves through lacrosse in 'Keepers of the Game'
Jacelyn Lazore shoots in the documentary "Keepers of the Game." (Peter Eliot Buntaine)

Teenage angst meets rigid cultural heritage in the engaging if too-neatly-packaged documentary "Keepers of the Game," about an all-Native girls' lacrosse team competing in the heart of the sport's origins: the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne straddling upstate New York and Canada.

As depicted by director Judd Ehrlich, who followed the Salmon River high school team through a momentous 2015 season, the challenges facing these female athletes are formidable. Budget cuts threaten funding public school sports, while the prevailing mood in Native lands is that women shouldn't be allowed to play a traditionally male sport.

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With identity issues already fraught in a community shrunken by the yoke of colonialism, these youngsters see in lacrosse a different kind of release than their male forebears who took up the stick to settle intertribal disputes or enthusiastically celebrate the creator. For them, it's as much an internal fight, to figure out — and assert — who they are in a changing world.

Individually, the girls we meet are the movie's captivating soul: fatherless ninth-grade goalie Marcella, prone to anger and thoughts of quitting; captain Tsieboo, a senior once consumed by suicidal thoughts but who's now a possible college recruit; and the emergent Lazore sisters, star scorers who admit to feeling disconnected from their heritage.

The game sequences sadly fall prey to voguish montages and squeezed framing that stifles appreciation for the athleticism involved, and some conversations between the girls and caring adults — including Tsieboo's mother, a supportive clan authority — land more as inspirational highlights. But even if its trajectory hews to a well-worn format, "Keepers of the Game" is as strong an argument that can be made for the rich emotional rewards of schoolgirls hitting the field to show everyone and themselves what they can achieve.

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'Keepers of the Game'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hils

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