There’s not quite as much corn in “The Final Season” as there is in the Iowa farm fields that run through it, but it’s close. The quintessential sports movie (beleaguered players overcome adversity and summon up the grit to win), this David Mickey Evans-helmed cockle-warmer is overscored, underwritten sometimes awkwardly shot, but for the most part capably acted and armed with a story that’s a sure thing. Film, too, could be a B.O. winner with the right support from the bullpen.
Based on the true story of the Norway High School Tigers, who won 20 straight Iowa state baseball championships before their school was deemed redundant, “The Final Season” recounts that ultimate 20th season — when longtime coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe) was fired, his assistant Kent Stock (Sean Astin) took over, and the team was all but relegated by the public to the dustbin of schoolboy sports history.
Astin is solid as the sober, plucky Stock, who is being set up for defeat by school board president Harvey Makepeace (Marshall Bell), the main proponent of a merger with the larger Madison school system. This would destroy the Norway kids’ baseball tradition, and the town’s identity along with it, as Harvey thinks a losing season will make the merger an easier sell.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to destroy something that means so much to these kids,” says Van Scoyoc. Indeed, the answer is never quite made clear; Harvey is pure villainy, without much of an articulated motive.
But there’s more amiss in “The Final Season” than one character’s motivation. With more plots than Forest Lawn, the film creates a virtual gridlock of intersecting narratives: Van Scoyoc is the crusty vet, Stock the natural but unproven leader; that’s one story. School board adviser Polly Hunt (a very nice Rachael Leigh Cook) provides a love interest for Stock; that’s another. Then there’s sullen hipster teen Mitch Akers (Michael Angarano), who’s been dragged to Norway by his dad (Tom Arnold).
Mitch’s struggle to fit in — he ultimately joins the team — is a movie of its own, although the filmmakers don’t seem to have had Angarano and Arnold around long enough to make full use of them. Meanwhile, the team wins, loses and lurches toward the finals, with Kent inspiring his squad with lines like, “How do you want to be remembered?”
What “The Final Season” doesn’t do, despite all its impassioned pleading on behalf of Norway baseball, is make a solidly convincing argument why the concerns of 20-odd baseball players should determine the fate of a school system. Yes, the town is proud of its team, its players and its years of trophies, but should sports really determine how everyone is educated? It’s an instance of filmmakers being so sure of their case they assume auds will come along.
Production values are often subpar. The shooting is unimaginative and the editing is rough; Angarano at one point hits a ball in a batting cage while looking the wrong way, and a fantastic catch toward the end of the film is set up, via cutting, to be a physical impossibility. The loudest flaw, though, is the music, which is grand, heroic and as subtle as a fungo bat to the head; infield practice is scored like the burning of Atlanta.