A Hallmark card to the inspirational small-town sports drama, "The Final Season" is so devoted to pummeling through clichés that it sometimes approaches parody. Characters, each one a specific type, speak in dime-store odes to the sacred game of baseball. The emotions are of the maudlin, heart-on-your-sleeve variety. The music score swells even when the scene doesn't call for it. The climax is set at the "big game." You get the picture. That's not to say that the film, directed by David Mickey Evans (1993's "The Sandlot" and a couple direct-to-video "Beethoven" sequels), is an awful watch, only that it is exceedingly familiar and just about as predictable as any movie can possibly be.
Based on a true story (big surprise there), "The Final Season" tells of, yes, the last season in the history of Norway, Iowa's Tigers high school baseball team. The year is 1991, and with the state planning to close down the school (and, thus, the team) at the end of the year, it is of great importance to the citizens of Norway that the 19-time champions go out on top. With longtime coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe) stepping down, former assistant coach Kent Stock (Sean Astin) is promoted to head the Tigersalready at a disadvantage due to several star players dropping outto victory.
"The Final Season" opens with Kent driving down a rural road, smiling and waving to every person he passes. They, of course, stop what they are doing in their yards and return the gesture. This "Sunnybrook Farm" mentality runs throughout the film, and as a result it plays as a sort of naive cousin to 2004's tougher, grittier and very similar "Friday Night Lights
." Meanwhile, the stock characters and story points don't miss a beat. There's the rebellious new kid in town, Mitch Akers (Michael Angarano), who hasn't yet gotten over the recent death of his mother and makes good by joining the baseball team. There are the obligatory love interests for heroes Kent and Mitch in the form of sympathetic state financial adviser Polly (Rachael Leigh Cook) and cute classmate Cindy (Danielle Savre). There's the team's pitcher, Sammy (Roscoe Myrick), who disappoints the team by giving up during a crucial game. There's a rising-to-the-top montage followed immediately afterwards by a discouraging downswing. There's an injury. There's a pre-championship locker room speech delivered by the coach. And there's the feel-good finale, in which the game moves into overtime, the supporting characters cheer from the stands, and the question of who's going to pull ahead is blindingly obvious.
The main actors are good enough, but behind their eyes the viewer senses that even they realize how obligatory the movie is. In a too-rare lead role, Sean Astin (2004's "50 First Dates
") is likable and real as Coach Kent Stock, even when he has to say things like, "It's not about winning, it's about playing the game right." As ex-coach Jim Van Scoyoc, Powers Boothe (2005's "Sin City
") tries to lend dignity, to no avail, to the majority of the cornball dialogue. My favorites: "This town grows baseball players like it does corn," and "Baseball is the only sport on earth where the object is to get home." Rachael Leigh Cook (2007's "Nancy Drew
") seems too young for her part as state financial worker Polly. The best performances are those by Michael Angarano (2005's "Sky High
"), instantly magnetic as good-guy bad boy Mitch Akers, and James Gammon (2004's "Silver City
"), a beacon of warmth and understanding as Mitch's grandfather Jared.
The basic outline of "The Final Season" might be based on fact, but the details are undeniably fiction, cobbled together by antiquated conventions of the sports genre. Tedious in that there isn't an ounce of originality in its two-hour running time, the film is nonetheless ably shot and directed. It's inoffensive fare, plain and simple, and will likely work for the die-hard baseballs fans in the audience. Still, it has to be asked: how many times will virtually the same motion picture have to be made before filmmakers decide to put a fresh spin on the old and decrepit? "The Final Season" isn't smart enough on any level to rise above the disposable.