October 18, 2007

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The Final Season (PG)
An Iowa high school baseball team built it (a dynasty of state championships) but the school district isnít going to let them come (because of school consolidation) in The Final Season, a movie that surrounds baseball with a warm heavenly glow while an American flag waves in the background next to a cooling apple pie.

Kent Stock (Sean Astin) loves baseball with the kinds of sweet, uncomplicated love that most people save for babies or donuts. When heís offered a chance to serve as assistant coach to Norway High School baseball coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe, who is the good guy here but still looks like he might be running a bordello from the dugout), Kent jumps at it and revels in each chip of baseball wisdom Jim flicks his way. But this idyllic small town might not stay so Field-of-Dreams-y. The school board is planning to close Norway High School and send the kids to a larger, distant high school. There will be more money for the town and better education for the kids, the board members argue. But weíll lose our specialness, say the baseball team boosters.

In the next school year, the last year of Norway High School, Van Scoyoc is shown the door (a sacrifice he makes to give the team that extra year) and Kent is hired on to coach the team. The teamís not looking so hot, though. Many of the best boys donít return and without Van Scoyoc the remaining members donít have a lot of faith in their abilities that season. And, the teamís gained a big city boy, Mitch Akers (Michael Angarano), a Chicago native whose father (Tom Arnold) has sent him to live with his own parents to soak in some farm values. The other kids at school donít like or trust Mitch, with his floppy hair, his thrift store Army jacket and his cigarette smoking. Mitch also likes beer and weed, things the kids in Norway just donít do, as Mitch is charmingly and absurdly informed by one of the other baseball team members. (The idea that kids in rural areas donít smoke, drink or do drugs is sweet and is contrary to everything Iíve ever read or heard or seen about rural life. But heck, maybe the Iowa of 1990 was a different world.) With the legacy of Norwayís 19 baseball state championships about to come to an end, can the young, untested Kent rally the boys for one more victorious season?

Have you ever seen any sports movies before?

The movie kind of assumes that the audience hasnít and, being brand new to the genre, will take each twist and turn of the townís politics and teamís progress as a never-before-seen story-telling feat. Perhaps when youíre making a movie this cookie-cutter thatís the only way to play it. The training montages, the outcast boy, the teamís waning faith ó if youíre going to use these very familiar ingredients, it would be death for the movie to appear to apologize for them or for a movie this earnest to wink at the camera.

The movie embraces its clichťs and its sappiness and if you can embrace it too, The Final Season kind of works. Too much time is spent building up instantly recognizable characters but they are, for the most part, likeable. Astin almost bursts with big-eyed earnestness; heís like a baseball coaching puppy. But he makes the platitudes palatable and Angarano gives up trying to make his character unlikeable fairly quickly. I canít imagine meeting people like this in real life but in a baseball movie all this ďaw shucksĒ-ness seems right at home.

The Final Season is a movie you can take your kids to if they are old enough to sit through live-action films and young enough not to be bothered by schmaltz. And if youíre a big enough baseball fan, the moments of humor and big-hearted cornfield-loving cinematography will make the film tolerable for you as well. C+

Rated PG for language, thematic elements and some teen smoking. Directed by David M. Evans and written by Art DíAlessandro and James Grayford, The Final Season is an hour and 53 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Yari Film Group.