MOVIE REVIEW: The Final Season not a home run, but it easily makes second base

Final_seasonsized_2 THE FINAL SEASON

I can’t think of a more appropriate film for release during the height of the baseball playoff season than this true story of the Norway Iowa Tigers and their ultimately failed struggle to keep their small team alive and together when their tiny school district is faced with consolidation in the early 1990s.

The 19-time state champions, the Tigers were coached by legendary coach Jim Van Scoyok (Boothe), a no-nonsense man who believes in instilling the love and desire for the game in his players. Joining him for the last two months of the 19th season is assistant coach Kent Stock (Astin), a lifelong lover of Norway and it’s baseball team, even though he grew up elsewhere. He leaves a coaching position in another nearby school to have the opportunity to work with his idol Van Scoyok and his team, so he can learn from him.

When the school board, against the wishes of the town and with the help of statehouse statistician Polly Hudson (Cook), votes to consolidate Norway’s school district with nearby Madison, the board grants Norway one final year, and one final season to play baseball. But because Coach Van Scoyok let it be known his opposition to the plans, school board president Makepeace (Bell) forces the coach out, and is determined to make sure Norway doesn’t do well it’s final season, for he fears they will go out as martyrs.

Stock, who left for a bank job in St. Louis, returns to try and take over the team, and to try and convince Hudson that her studies indicating consolidation was good for the district has actually driven some other nearby towns to near extinction. The final spring’s team isn’t sure of Stock, who’s a newcomer except for the last two months the previous season, and it’s gotten around that he used to coach girls volleyball, not baseball.

Complicating things is Mitch Akers (Angarano), a recent arrival to Norway from Chicago. His father (Arnold), who grew up in Norway, sends Mitch to live with his grandparents after he gets in trouble back home. A chip on his shoulder, and still grieving for his recently deceased mother, the city-bred Mitch is more interested in finding places to buy cigarettes and score some weed than he is in school. But after getting into trouble with the local law, Mitch takes to heart his grandfather’s advice that he get a hobby. He seeks out Coach Van Scoyok, whom he’s had a run in with previously in Van Scoyok’s classroom. The coach takes Mitch seriously, and tells him a story about Mitch’s father’s days on the team 20 years earlier. When new coach Stock sees Akers working out in a batting cage and sees his talent, Stock knows the troublemaker-with-a-heart would make an excellent addition to the team.

The Final Season easily gets to second base with a cast of young actors that come across as true small-town value kids. Newcomer Brett Claywell as Patrick, a member of the Norway team who’s younger sister Cindy is sweet on newcomer Akers, shines in his efforts to try and help Mitch adjust by instructing him on small-town values and what it means to be a part of Norway as a whole. Boothe is fantastic as Van Scoyok, who lives and breathes baseball (he lives across the street from the school’s baseball field), and I for one wish Boothe would play more roles like this, for movie-makers all too often cast him as a heavy. Astin (also the executive producer) is spot on as Stock – he has a real affinity for underdog roles like this, as witnessed in the college football movie classic Rudy as well as his turn as Samwise Gamgee in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. And longtime personal favorite Angarano, PNR’s 2006 #1 Rising Star, brings his formidable acting chops to a role which could have been in so many ways a rip off of the Kelly Leek character in the Bad News Bears movies of the 70s, but Angarano takes it so much further, from the pathos and angst of his estranged relationship with his father and his mother’s recent passing to the grit and determination we see progressing through the movie as Mitch learns to buckle down, determining to make his life in Norway a peaceful and somewhat pleasant, albeit reluctant, one.

Larry Miller is hilarious as a Des Moines sportswriter following the team around, advising Stock on what others are saying about him as well as what he, who has followed the team for years, thinks. And Tom Arnold, in what amounts to little more than a cameo, nails Mitch’s still-in-mourning, work-obsessed father Burt perfectly, in what I think is his finest role to date. Dealing with trying to get his wild son to settle down, still deeply missing his wife, and being confused by the blows life is dealing him, Arnold is excellent in his small role.

But the movie does have its problems. Sometimes the plot gets a little too contrived, such as when one player’s father gets so involved he has a heart attack and told he can’t be so deeply involved with baseball anymore by his doctor. And the romance that crops up between consolidation rivals Stock and Hudson seems rushed, almost forced at times. And when one player suddenly gets depressed and develops an almost anti-team sentiment, his solution to win back the respect and friendship of his confused teammates during the final game is a bit much, although it really may have happened that way, I don’t know for sure.

Definitely facing an uphill battle at the box-office, The Final Season is a worthy successor to the long string of "underdog gets the championship" movies over the years. There’s very little that’s not totally safe for kids, and it’s the kind of movie that a baseball-loving family will really love to watch together. It might not be quite a home run, but The Final Season is long long way from a total strikeout. Give it a look, you won’t regret it.

MY SCORE: 3.25 (out of 5)

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