The Final Season (Yari Film Group, PG)

film_finalseason_sm.jpgThrow in a few side plots and you have a nicely authentic story about small-town life, the importance of baseball and the inevitability of change.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sometimes it helps to go into a movie with low expectations. I’ve seen a lot of sports films through the years, and they rarely get me excited anymore. There’s almost always three or four standard plots, and movies about baseball, football, etc., fall victim to clichés faster than almost any genre. So The Final Season, a film about a small-town Iowa high school baseball team trying to win its 20th championship, didn’t sound like the kind of film that would really rev it up in the stimulation department. But a small, modest film can sometimes have charms lacking in more significant Hollywood product, and that turns out to be the case with this one.

In Norway, Iowa, a town so small that baseball is virtually its only continuing heritage ("We grow ballplayers here like corn," Coach von Scoyoc proudly tells his assistant at Norway High School), the team’s winning record is threatened by the State’s decision to consolidate smaller schools into larger ones. The popular Coach (Powers Boothe) is fired when it appears the school’s last season will be a losing one, but Kent Stock (Sean Astin), who’d been his assistant, returns from a coaching gig in St. Louis to take the helm for his disillusioned players. The Norway Tigers don’t seem to have much chance of turning things around, but Stock tries to inspire them by talking about how memorable it would be to end their reign on a high—with a 20th championship. Would the team rather be remembered for being winners to the very end (and claiming that nice symmetrical number) or for fizzling out once their famous coach was gone and the stakes were lowered?

It takes the less confident Stock time to energize his players, but with focus and determination on his side and the eventual encouragement of a pretty administrator named Polly (Rachael Leigh Cook), he begins to get results. Throw in a few side plots like the tension between a father (Tom Arnold) and his rebellious son Mitch Akers (Michael Angarano), who’s a latecomer to the baseball team and initially at odds with them—and the uncaring government types who want to put Norway High out of its misery as soon as possible—and you have a nicely authentic story about small-town life, the importance of baseball and the inevitability of change.

It’s rather poignant to observe how the all-American pastime permeates the lives of these Iowa residents—such a narrow focus brings subtleties of character very much to the fore. It helps that the film is directed by David M. Evans, who made the previous baseball-themed charmer The Sandlot. Evans clearly has a love for the sport on the neighborhood and schoolyard level, and he injects the film with plenty of heart (some might say sap). Oh, and it also helps that this is a true story.

Of the actors, Astin makes the strongest impression; his boyish charm always comes across as genuine, whether in epic films like Lord of the Rings or low-key outings like this. Cook and Angarano also have some nice moments. But this is basically a simple family movie, with nothing weighty on its mind except the honor and pride of school sports, and how people in small towns cope with unwanted changes. It’s hardly a classic, but in its modest way it provides a pleasant slice-of-life look at an American tradition that continues to serve as a community focal point and character-building activity. | Kevin Renick

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