Friday, June 30, 2006

Movie Review: The Sandlot

by Matt Sandler

We all know that no sport wears its history on its sleeve more proudly than baseball. Not only does this mean that baseball fans are more aware of players and records from the past than fans from other sports, but the sport in general is meant to evoke nostalgia and remind us of our childhoods. Sometimes this sepia-toned “isn’t it a grand sport, and wasn’t it better back when it was just a game” way of approaching baseball can be laid on a bit too thick. A good example of this is the warm-hearted but overly sentimental family comedy The Sandlot (1993).

The movie takes place in 1962, when fifth-grader Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) moves with his mother (Karen Allen) and stepfather, Bill (Denis Leary) to a Los Angeles suburb towards the end of the school year. He is a shy and somewhat awkward kid who has an uneasy relationship with his stepdad, and does not feel comfortable pressuring his stepdad to teach him how to play catch as he had promised. Wandering around the neighborhood, he stumbles on a sandlot where eight boys around his age are taking batting practice. Too shy to approach them, he stands in the outfield, happy just to observe. When he embarrasses himself by bumbling a catch and a throw, he assumes that his “life is over,” which is a nice moment that emphasizes the over-inflated sense we ascribe to incidents when we are kids.

After a pep talk by his mother in which she emphasizes that she wants him to make friends and that he has permission to get into a little trouble, he again has the nerve to leave the house. Upon his second visit to the sandlot, the best and most forceful player in the group, Benjamin Franklin (Benny) Rodriguez (Mike Vitar) invites him to join the group, much to the other members’ disgust. They may be outsiders to the rest of the kids in the community, but they are a tight-knit group, and are reluctant to allow in a member who clearly does not know how to play the game. Just when Scotty is about to give up again, everything clicks for him, thanks to some help from Benny, and all of a sudden he can catch and throw as well as the others.

We get to know the other eight members of the group. Besides Benny, the two teammates that stand out the most are the feisty chubby catcher Hamilton Porter (“The Great Hambino”) (Patrick Renna) and Michael “Squints” Palledorous (Chauncey Leopardi), so nicknamed because of his glasses. Their performances are clearly the most enjoyable in the movie. Renna seems like he could be plucked from the old “Our Gang” series—he is proudly pudgy, carries on an incessant banter at home plate to distract the batters, and protects his friends with fierce loyalty. Like Porter, “Squints” reminds us of kids we knew growing up who defended themselves against bullying by adopting a persona—the fighter, the prankster, etc.—that enabled them to be surrounded by protectors. He stars in one of the best scenes of the movie, as he concocts an ingenious scheme to steal a kiss from the town babe, Wendy Pfefferkorn (Marley Shelton).

The plot is mostly low-key in the movie, although it clearly tries to emphasize that things that we look back on with amusement now can be sources of drama and terror when we are children. (The adult Scotty, voiced by the director, David Mickey Evans, narrates. I’m guessing that Evans, born in 1962, was partially named after The Mick.) After Benny busts a ball with one of his powerful hits, Scotty swipes a signed Babe Ruth baseball from his stepdad so they can continue playing. One of the odder themes of the movie is that Scotty is amazingly clueless about many of the things that almost every 11-year-old boy would know. He doesn’t know who Ruth is either by name or by one of his famous nicknames, and he has never heard of a Smore. Sometimes we wonder if he moved to California from another state or another planet.

Scotty hits the Babe Ruth ball over the fence, into the yard of the “mean old” Mr. Mertle (James Earl Jones) and the terrifying dog that he owns, referred to by all the kids as “The Beast.” Evans does a clever job of showing the dog mostly half-seen or in silhouette, to emphasize how he is bigger in the kids’ minds than he really turns out to be. One scene shows the kids developing ever more clever devices to retrieve the ball without having to climb over the fence or ring Mr. Mertle’s doorbell. One of these is an amazingly huge Erector set that would almost certainly be beyond the means of your typical group of eleven-year-olds.

The rest of the movie is filled with nice but basic moral lessons for the intended audience of kids. The group of nine players has a black and a Hispanic, and nothing is made of this in the entire movie. Whether this was true anywhere in the country in 1962 I am not so sure. You can also probably guess that Mr. Mertle—and the “Beast,” really named Hercules—are not as scary as the kids imagine them to be.

“The Sandlot” tries to capture some of the same wonder and reverence for our childhoods as “A Christmas Story,” but that is a better movie than this one. “The Sandlot” strains too hard at times to impart moral lessons, when some more amusing anecdotes would have done the trick. Still, there is one scene that is pretty breathtaking. On July Fourth, due to the light provided by a local fireworks display, the kids are able to play at night. As the kids stare in wonder both at the fireworks and at Benny mashing homers, we are reminded again that we’re pretty damn lucky to live in a country that loves baseball so much.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan", appears alternate Fridays.

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