Sports movies have become so attached to one formula that it is difficult to make them seem original. It's even more difficult when the film’s producers, writers, and director don’t even try, serving up a hodge-podge of sports movie clichés. This is only one of the many problems that ground out The Final Season into a well intentioned but ultimately unsatisfying retread.
Bearing the always dicey “based on a true story” tag, The Final Season of the title is the 1991 baseball season at a high school in Norway, Iowa. Despite having a town population of less than 600 people, the school has won 19 state baseball titles, including 12 under longtime coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe.) As Van Scoyoc ponderously tells his new assistant Kent Stock (Sean Astin) after their first practice together, “we grow ballplayers like corn.” They live in Iowa, get it? Of course you do and if you don’t, Booth fires off more baseball and coaching clichés in a growly monotone every time he opens his mouth.
For reasons that are never quite made clear (a slight of the superintendent’s son by Van Scoyoc is alluded to) the local school board wants to merge the school with another in a bigger town nearby; in effect, eliminating their baseball dynasty. Van Scoyoc won’t go along and is replaced by Stock who’s given one last season with the team. Now you wouldn’t think a baseball dynasty and defending state champion would be considered an underdog, but writers Art D’Allesandro and James Grayford can’t seem to get away from the Hoosiers effect. They desperately try to sell the idea that this talented team is battling adversity in its hunt for the championship. Its 20th championship. Hardly David and Goliath.
Focusing on their championship run is not enough to keep the film going. There is little dramatic tension about the team’s chances and even less conflict between the team and their new coach. Astin, who is also an executive producer, gives a decent performance but neither he nor his character leaves much of an imprint on the film. His romance with a state education official (the horribly miscast and wooden Rachael Leigh Cook) is as dull as everything else he does. Boothe disappears from the movie after the first third and most of the players are non-descript. That leaves Michael Angarano (Sky High and 24) as rebel player Mitch Akers to carry the secondary story. A transfer from Chicago sent to live with his grandparents, Akers feels a sense of belonging on the team. But his original rebellion and then acceptance feels pre-ordained from the moment you first see him onscreen with long hair and a motorcycle jacket. It’s all been done before.
Director David Mickey Evans, familiar to the family baseball movie from The Sandlot, clearly likes the game and puts in some realistic baseball montages for the enjoyment of fans. But he’s hamstrung by this script and most of the film's performances (Larry Miller as a cynical sportswriter and Angarano excepted). The Final Season can’t seem to show the importance of the team on the small town so people make awkward unrealistic speeches to each other as compensation. That gets tedious after the first few minutes and all that's left is a long trudge to an inevitable conclusion.
The obvious love of The Final Season's creators for small town baseball makes this a hard picture to dislike. What other film gives you the entire National Anthem sung by an 8 year old with glasses and pigtails? But love isn’t always enough. Good writing, good performances, interesting characters and a little originality goes a long way. If you don’t have that, then you haven’t got anything anyone hasn’t already seen many, many times before.