And now for something completely different: Director John Hyams, heretofore best known for his genre-centric output in film (“Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”) and television (“Z Nation,” “The Originals”) successfully tries his hand at playing for laughs with “All Square,” a casually profane and frequently uproarious working-class dramedy about a small-time bookie who turns a big profit — for a while — by taking bets on Little League games. Winner of the Narrative Spotlight audience award at the SXSW Film Festival, this scrappy indie could conceivably generate enough favorable word of mouth to gain acceptance as a bonding experience for indulgent fathers and their adolescent sons. Keep in mind, though, that moms — and less permissive dads — might not be equally amused.
Michael Kelly hits all the right notes in the lead role of John, a morally challenged ne’er-do-well who wields pugnacious sarcasm and vinegary cynicism as both offensive and defensive weapons. Years ago, he loomed large in his Baltimore suburb as a Little League champ clearly destined for a MLB roster. But he cut short his minor league career and returned home after his disreputable father (Harris Yulin, the movie’s most valuable supporting player) was arrested for vehicular homicide; after his conviction, John took over his dad’s sports book.
Ever since, John’s been barely scraping by, depending on a steadily decreasing clientele (he’s losing bettors to the Internet all the time) while occasionally earning an honest buck hanging sheetrock. He’s also given to earning dishonest bucks, or at least pilfering things that can be sold or hoarded, by burglarizing the homes of gamblers who can’t cover their losses. Judging from what we see early on, John has had to develop versatile skills for breaking and entering.
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John serves as blunt-spoken narrator for “All Square,” and he wins grudging respect for never trying to justify his self-serving behavior. The morning after a one-night stand at the home of a former high school classmate (Pamela Adlon), he finds himself alone with Brian (Jesse Ray Sheps), the woman’s 12-year-old son. Eager to remove himself from an awkward situation, he agrees to drive Brian to his Little League game. Later, after noting the boy’s grievous inability to pitch, he offers to give him a few pointers. But, of course, he has ulterior motives for his seeming beneficence: John will use any excuse to hang out at games and develop a brand new, more financially solvent clientele — parents who are willing to bet heavily on their kids’ games.
There is more than a hint of “The Bad News Bears” to Timothy Brady’s shaggy-dog screenplay during scenes in which John contributes generously to Brian’s delinquency: He offers the boy a beer (or two) before games, coaches him on the finer points of fighting dirty while facing bullies, and advises him to get in touch with his inner hoodlum because he’s a minor and nothing will go on his permanent record. (Compared to this brazenly unsavory character, Walter Matthau’s boozy Bears coach was a benign role model.) Sheps makes a good foil for Kelly, subtly suggesting Brian’s aching vulnerability, and his desperate need for a father figure, even while the boy thoroughly enjoys the benefits of John’s bad influence.
But the movie goes several paces beyond “Bears” and follows its own course as it observes — from John’s p.o.v. — the outrageous excess of ostensibly loving parents who turn into screaming and sometimes brawling monsters while observing children at their games. (If you have ever had a child in Little League, you may laugh, but not smile, when the shouting matches begin.) The fact that many of those parents are betting heavily on said games only serves to fuel their monstrousness.
Away from the baseball diamond, “All Square” effectively pivots to moments of surprisingly affecting drama, especially when John’s dad reveals the reason for his years-ago crime — in a scene that Yulin knocks right out the park — and John in turn reveals that he hasn’t been entirely honest with us, or himself.
A brief eruption of violence in the third act is deliberately unsettling, arguably too much so. But Hyams and Brady prove to be quite deft, and credible, at pulling back just before fulfilling worst expectations. At the same time, however, they deserve credit for not trying to neatly tie up their dangling plot threads with a happily-ever-after bow, and for not being too hard on some secondary characters, such as a politically ambitious hypocrite played by Josh Lucas, who likely would fare much worse in a more conventional movie.