If the opening scene of The Final Season — a languorous drive through the rolling fields and farms of rural Iowa — is any indication of what of is to come, then we should expect corn, and lots of it. Baseball films have this tendency to wallow in pastoral sentimentality, losing themselves in sepia-toned nostalgia for times and places that only ever existed in collective myth. And done right, the best of these films – Field of Dreams, The Natural — evoke something essential if amorphous, divorcing the essence of baseball from the actual mechanics of the game itself, uncovering a deeper, spiritual significance in what the game means, what it says about us as a people and a community. Done wrong, less fortunate baseball films tend to imitate this same template, but lose their way by overindulging in dewy-eyed mawkishness and crass emotional manipulation, confusing banality for substance, and compensating for a lack of profundity by overplotting.
The Final Season, a well-intentioned little film with its heart in the right place, and everything else out of whack, is guilty on all the above counts. It’s based on the true story of the Norway (Iowa) High School baseball team, a juggernaut that by 1990 had reeled off 19 Division 1 State Championships, despite the fact that the population of the town hovered just below 600, and the total student body at the high school barely cracked 100. However, looming consolidation with a larger school district threatens to end this remarkable streak, and dissolve the identity of the team and the town. Going into their (ahem) final season, Norway High is playing for their legacy: trying to win their 20th championship and go out on top.
So far, so good. Sure, it has potential corniness written all over it, but the central story could work (even if it’s hard to accept a team that is basically the New York Yankees of high school baseball as an underdog). The problem, though, is in the overwritten and overly sentimental script. Showing little indication of even a casual edit, it’s just an absolute mess, the main story disintegrating into a thousand little subplots, none of them ever quite connecting together the way the writers wish they would. I counted maybe nine of these, heavy on the treacle and short on depth.. In semi-order of appearance:
The grizzled, salt of the earth high school coach Jim van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe, the only bright spot in the entire film), beloved by players and town, has coached seemingly since the dawn of time. He is now being forced out of his job before the final season by the school board for protesting consolidation.
The young rookie coach, Kent Stock (a bland Sean Astin), former assistant to old coach, coming back to the small town from the big city to replace his mentor and lead the team in their final season.
The teenage ne’er-do-well, Mitch (Michael Angarano), uncontrollable and wild, sent to live with his grandparents by his father (a former Norway High ballplayer himself) in small town Norawy. May or may not learn valuable life lessons via baseball and small town life.
The entire population of Norway squaring off against the one, evil school board member who is hell bent on consolidation, and will get it at any cost, including sabotaging the high school’s final season.
The rookie coach and his fledgling relationship with stock love interest (Rachel Lee Cook). Love interest also happens to be working for the state and is in cahoots with evil school board guy. Will he make her see the light and understand the true meaning of baseball?
The teenage ne’er-do-well and his fledgling relationship with his love interest, who is also the sister of his rival on the team.
The errant young pitcher, who loses faith in himself and the game, who may or may not find redemption in the Big Game.
The two eternally bickering small town newspaper reporters.
The grievously ill farmer/school bus driver, whose feistiness and love of the game leads him to disregard medical orders and attend the Big Game anyway, despite the fact that all the excitement might just kill him dead.
And I think that might be it. Oh no, wait, one more:
The strained relationship between teenage ne’er-do-well and his father, and between his father and his father’s father, and between the teenage ne’er-do-well and his grandfather. Will any of them ever understand one another?
No really, that’s it this time. Reading all that back, it seems comically ambitious, just how much story the screenwriters and director are trying to cram into a two hour film. And maybe if the first hour (when most of the subplots are rolled out) were taken on its own, The Final Season would actually make a passable pilot for a series about baseball and rural America, something like a less edgy Friday Night Lights.
Unfortunately, the film wants to introduce and resolve all of these plot strands in 120 minutes, the end result being that we never spend enough time with any one character or plot to actually invest ourselves and care. Nothing flows, the scenes all sort of just pile on top of one another with no graceful connection. It’s just an ungodly mess, and by the time the Big Game (which is quite exciting and well filmed) rolls around (which takes up the last 25 minutes) it feels like the end of an entirely different (and better) movie has been grafted on to the film we have just been watching.
But I suppose if the plethora of subplots hadn’t killed The Final Season, the onslaught of hoary clichés and beaten-to-death themes would have. The film’s script is full of lines like: “We grow baseball players around here like corn” and “It’s about playing the game the RIGHT way” and “Baseball is the only game where the object is to go home”, all delivered with gravelly gravitas and nary a hint of irony. I can usually appreciate this sort of fresh faced innocence, but The Final Season piles on the groan-inducing platitudes to an intolerable degree.
Thematically, the film paints in broad strokes. Baseball is ALL — it is the life blood of Norway (“Norway IS baseball”), and in Norway they always play baseball right (which means overemphasis on infield defense and playing small ball, and vilifying power pitching and home runs). The team, and by extension the town, represent all that is right and true in the world.
What will happen when towns like Norway vanish? Especially when the only redemption possible in the world is through using small town, rightly played baseball as a conduit (see above subplots, most of which hinge on the redemptive powers of baseball). Sort of like in Bull Durham, baseball is posited as a secular religion, but here it’s elevated to something like monomania, rather than transcendence.
I wanted to root for The Final Season – it has heart, it really does — perhaps too much. And it pains me to jump all over a film that was obviously a labor of love and a tribute to a real town and real people. It might have worked if it had gone down a grittier path, or if it had done more with the erosion of small towns and small town identity, a melancholy subject which the film touches on at points, but never really delves into in great detail (because economic depression isn’t exactly uplifting or rousing). But in the end it’s little more than a compilation of hundreds of hackneyed scenes we’ve seen done a hundred times better in a hundred different baseball films, a loose bundle of stock situations, stock characters and stock lines that strikes out looking without ever taking the bat of its shoulder.
The Final Season presents an acceptable platter of extras, which tend to be long on effusive praise and short on real insight (with one notable exception). The first 20-minute feature is a standard behind the scenes/let’s interview everyone involved deal — the actors fawn over each other, the director fawns over the actors, and everyone fawns over Iowa (the film, to its credit, was actually shot on location) – this when they are not waxing (semi-)poetic about baseball. The second, shorter, feature is pretty much a quick recap of the entire film, centering on the winning tradition of Norway High Baseball, and features interviews of the real coaches involved in Norway High, who simply reiterate points about fundamental baseball and small town America made in the film. I imagine the inclusion of this is to verify that the nostalgic hokeyness presented in the film is actually the real deal.
Better are the two commentary tracks, which surprisingly, are quite fascinating, especially in tandem. The first, with the director and Sean Astin, addresses baseball as film, with the usual ins and outs of the shooting, anecdotes and what not.
The second track, featuring real life coaches Kent Stock and Jim van Scoyoc, comes at the film from a completely different angle, the film as baseball. Barely touching on the action and drama in the film, they mostly address issues of the mechanics of capturing sport on screen, of casting “specialist sports extras” (i.e., kids who can actually play the game), and the logistics and difficulties of recreating the games so they hew as close as possible to the actual games they are supposed to represent. I don’t think it’s anything I’ve ever really thought about regarding sports films, about how go about staying true to the way the game is played while capturing the spontaneity of it in a strictly non-spontaneous situation. It’s fascinating stuff, really, and the care that went into the recreations shows, and is basically the only thing The Final Season gets right. Too bad that much rigor and care couldn’t have been put into the script and direction.