Sports Cliches Strike Out Overstuffed 'Final Season'
"The Final Season" breaks from tradition only in that its protagonists, the Norway Tigers, are 19-time state-championship winners: In most sports movies, they'd be the team the ragtag underdogs have to pull together to beat. But standing in the way of their 20th trophy is a heartless, numbers-driven school board trying to fold Norway into a larger school district, gutting the 500-person community and disbanding its beloved Tigers. This sits poorly with revered local coach Jim Van Scoyoc ("Deadwood's" Powers Boothe), so the board replaces him with inexperienced newcomer Kent, hoping a big Norway loss will kill the town's resistance.
Naturally, Kent has other ideas. But "The Final Season" only partly focuses on him and his team. It's packed with subplots; everybody on screen has a story. A rebellious Chicago teen finds redemption through team spirit. Junior school-board member Polly Hudson (Rachael Leigh Cook) struggles with the ethics of the school-district merger. The Tigers' pitcher lacks team confidence, and the janitor has health problems. Even the kid singing the National Anthem at the big state game gets her own sympathetic POV shots and her own post-performance proud moment with her father. Everybody's a protagonist, if only for a few minutes.
The egalitarian approach keeps Evans' film as full as a movie based on real events should be and lets him gloss over some of the most threatening cliches, like the unlikely romance between Kent and Polly. But it also leaves the film shallow and crowded, with lazy characterization—the school-board head is practically a mustache-twirling, cackling film-serial villain—and there's no central focus except syrupy sentiment. The film's climactic baseball game does crackle with nail-biting energy; Evans cut his teeth on "The Sandlot" and its sequel, and he stages the sports scenes with effective snap and hustle. But the 90-minute lead-up is full of hokey sentiment and unearned gushiness. At least Evans was gracious enough to warn everyone well in advance.
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