A brotherly love tale substantially weightier than its baseball road-trip premise might indicate, “Chasing 3000” overcomes some heavy-handed moments and narrative shortcuts with a surprising degree of emotional honesty. Following two teenage siblings as they furtively travel cross-country to witness Roberto Clemente knock out his 3,000th career hit, the film never sugarcoats the messiness of family dynamics nor indulges in boyhood runaway fantasies, and it should give its young target demo plenty to chew on. Pic, which opens in eight cities today, should do most of its business on homevid.

As related by the middle-aged Mickey (Ray Liotta) to his kids on the way to a Pittsburgh Pirates game, the 1972 baseball season was a watershed time for him and his younger brother. Pittsburgh natives, the young Mickey (Trevor Morgan) and his muscular-dystrophy-stricken brother, Roger (Rory Culkin), grew up as Pirates and Clemente obsessives, with Mickey even mimicking the great Puerto Rican outfielder’s mannerisms in the batter’s box. The two are soon unhappily moved out to Los Angeles by single mother Marilyn (Lauren Holly), and Mickey’s behavior and batting average both take a turn for the worse.

Suspended from the team, and with Mom away on a business trip, Mickey impulsively decides to steal her car and drive back to Pittsburgh, where Clemente is on the verge of racking up No. 3,000. He reluctantly takes Roger along, with both unaware that he’s in the throes of a potentially fatal bout of bronchitis.

Roger’s ever-worsening sickness saps much of the fun out of this teenage dream scenario, but director Gregory J. Lanesey (working from a script he wrote with Cris D’Annunzio and Bill Mikita) doesn’t hesitate to paint the Southwestern countryside as anything but a picaresque playground. While the boys meet plenty of conveniently helpful strangers along the way — including a fellow runaway (Tania Raymonde) and a kindly Dixie farmer (a winning M. Emmet Walsh) — they nonetheless learn some hard lessons rather quickly, losing the car and Roger’s crutches in rapid succession.

There are some truly dark themes explored here, as Mickey recognizes his failures as an older brother and Roger comes to terms with the low survival rate for kids with his condition — in an admirably restrained scene, he urges Mickey on by explaining he might not live long enough to take another similar trip. While these themes are certainly sanitized a bit in order to appeal to the film’s young-adult aud, they’re nonetheless remarkably straightforward.

Thesps Morgan and Culkin are both strong here and manage to nail the push-pull of affection and constant bickering that characterizes most fraternal friendships. Holly is also a standout, segueing from worry to fury at her wayward charges.

The film is certainly imbued with a deep respect for central ballplayer Clemente, though at times it borders on the idolatrous. By all accounts, Clemente was exceptional as both a ballplayer and a human being,, dying in a plane crash soon after the ’72 season while en route to deliver relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. but the film pushes his saintliness a bit too far, with several characters all but reduced to tears by the very mention of the man.

Tech credits are pro.

Chasing 3000

  • Production: A Maya Entertainment release of a Pretty Dangerous Films presentation of a Ryan R. Johnson production. Produced by Johnson, Bill Mikita, Matt Radecki. Executive producer, Patrick F. Gallagher. Co-producer, Steve Mikita. Directed by Gregory J. Lanesey. Screenplay, Bill Mikita, Cris D'Annunzio, Lanesey, from a story by Mikita, D'Annunzio.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Denis Maloney; editor, Shannon Mitchell; music, Lawrence Shragge; music supervisor, Sean Fernald; production designer, Ken Coplan; art director, Matt Hausmann; set decorator, Rose Shawhan; costume designer, Marianne Parker; sound, Brandon Barnts; re-recording mixer, Jeremy Grody; stunt coordinator, Hiro Koda; assistant director, Joseph Suarez; casting, Shannon Makhanian. Reviewed at Sunset screening room, West Hollywood, Aug. 20, 2010. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 102 MIN.
  • With: Adult Mickey Straka - Ray Liotta Teenage Mickey Straka - Trevor Morgan Teenage Roger Straka - Rory Culkin Marilyn Straka - Lauren Holly Highway Patrolman - Keith David Poppy - Seymour Cassel Chuck Ireland - M. Emmett Walsh <b>With:</b> Ricardo Chavira, Michael O'Keefe, Tania Raymonde, Lori Petty, Kevin Gage, Andrew Byrniarski, Willa Holland.