"The Final Season" doesn't hit one out of the park, but it still wins us over.
For once, here's a sports movie that doesn't feature players who are expected to lose.
"The Final Season" is a good-natured, loosely fact-based story about the legendary Norway, Iowa, high school baseball team. The Tigers, a squad of hardworking, disciplined farm boys, won 19 state championships before an impending merger with a larger school district in 1991 threatened to dilute its talent pool.
Sean Astin plays the new coach who guided the Tigers that fateful season; in an exchange with the hometown paper's skeptical sportswriter, he says his players are snoozing on the bus to an away game because they're tired from their early morning chores. The writer (Larry Miller) chuckles, "Still working that underdog angle, are you?"
That kind of self-awareness rescues the film from death by corn. The story touches all the expected bases, with nary a narrative curveball in sight.
Astin wins over the initially resentful team, and conducts a chaste, PG-rated romance with Rachael Leigh Cook, a school official pushing the merger. There are unfeeling bureaucrats on the board of education who don't respect Norway's proud traditions, and they get a comeuppance of sorts. There's a sullen pitcher who rebelliously smokes cigarettes (Michael Angarano), and his neglectful, widowed dad (Tom Arnold); sure enough, Pop makes it to the Big Game and cheers for his boy.
A folksy atmosphere of apple-pie Americana reigns over the film. Only Powers Boothe dares to play against the grain, with a gruff, intimidating turn as Norway's departing coach. Too many sports movies forget that part of a great coach's motivational skill is the ability to be scary. Astin is always a welcome presence onscreen, but the glowering Boothe knocks it out of the park.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186
Rating: Pg For Language, Thematic Elements and Some Teen smoking. By COLIN COVERT firstname.lastname@example.org