Oprah Movie Club Baseball Pick #2: The Sandlot
Rating: 14/20 (Abbey: 15/20)
Plot: New kid Scotty Smalls tries to fit in during his first summer in the neighborhood. He becomes the ninth player on the sandlot baseball team; looks up to the best player, Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez; and eventually forces the team into a face-to-face confrontation with a monstrous dog.
"You're killin' me, Smalls."
I've seen two references to that lately, once on a t-shirt this weekend, and it's led me to believe this movie is more popular that I thought. I saw it back in '93 in the movie theater with a girl I kind of liked. Wait, that's not right. That was Rookie of the Year. Who did I see this with? Was it my wife, another girl I kind of liked?
This movie bugs me because it should be better. It's about something, there's palpable nostalgia, and the characters, though annoying, are memorable and say memorable things. I like what the movie's about. There's this lovely idea of this game that goes on forever that any adult watching this knows can't really go on forever. And then there's this lurking threat, this monstrosity of a dog threatening to take that childhood magic away. In the end, it's memories--even ones bloated with exaggeration--that win out and keep childhood alive. Really, that's one of the beautiful things about baseball--how it keeps the pulse of time ticking--and that's what makes it the perfect activity for these kids to spend their time with. The majority of this movie brushes up against subplots--Smalls' relationship with his step-dad, infatuation with a hot lifeguard--but none of it's developed. The focus is on all these nostalgic tidbits that paint this Rockwell-esque idealistic picture that, although definitely set in a specific time period, manages to still feel timeless in a way. Near the end, the writer/director David M. Evans figured out that he needed a central conflict and made the little idiot who had never heard of Babe Ruth hit a priceless baseball artifact over the fence. But before that, the episodic structure is great and developing this time and place even when there's not much of a story and the lively characters.
This suffers a bit from some child acting, like all the young performers were sat in front of Bad News Bears and told to just emulate them. They do succeed, for the most part, in being actual boys, trash-talking, lifeguard-leering, time-wasting prepubescent boys. The rapport between the boys, kind of a Bad-News-Bear lite, is fun enough, especially for a family movie. The movie has less to do with story and more to do with their relationships.
If there's an antagonist at all, it's time. The boys are enjoying a game that can't really go on forever, and because they're little boys, they're just too stupid (or naive) to understand that. Time's going to eat away at their game, their sandlot, and their memories. At the very least, time will distort their memories, bloating killer dogs and adding several feet to their home run distances. You ever notice how small places from your childhood are when you return as an adult? Go find the hallways of your elementary school, and you'll feel like a fucking giant. I'm not accusing our storytellers of dishonesty or anything, but you get the sense that the narration is a little unreliable.
Despite likable characters and a great sense of Hollywood-manufactured nostalgia, this is far from perfect. David M. Evans tiresome narration, the deluge of fun but predictable 50's rock music, and a feel-goody look at small-town America is a little too glossy. The narration and soundtrack recall The Wonder Years and Stand By Me respectively, and that gloss almost absurdly ignores the discrimination of the era. I mean, are we really supposed to believe that James Earl Jones, a guy who finds his way into every sappy baseball movie, really had a chance to beat Babe Ruth's records? Or that the black kid's going to be allowed in that pool? It's almost like Evans had plans for Jones' character to lament never getting his chance in the big leagues because of the color of his skin but chickened out and blinded the character instead. Maybe that's just a little too heavy for a family movie.
Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable enough and really nails all the right baseball feelings for adults who loved the game as kids. Its ability to simultaneously exude happy-go-luckiness and wistfulness is what makes it a winner despite its lack of ambition and other flaws.