Nearly two decades after scoring an audience award at Sundance for “Two Family House,” a smartly understated yet deeply affecting indie about a Staten Island factory worker who deeply regrets stifling his showbiz ambitions, director Raymond De Felitta steps back up to the plate with “Bottom of the 9th,” another dramatically solid and emotionally satisfying drama that pivots on a long-shot attempt to fulfill long-delayed dreams.
De Felitta — whose resume also includes “City Island,” “Rob the Mob” and the 2016 TV miniseries “Madoff” — takes an admirably restrained approach to a familiar scenario that could have come off as sappy in the wrong hands. (Nothing, not even a vicious beating delivered by vengeful toughs, is allowed to get out of hand here.) At the same time, however, he allows his most valuable players, led by Joe Manganiello and Sofia Vergara, more than enough freedom to make vivid and compelling impressions within the lines he has drawn.
Manganiello plays Sonny Stano, a once-promising baseball player who was on his way to a major league career with the New York Yankees when he accidentally killed someone in a street fight. After spending 18 years in Sing Sing, he returns to his old Bronx neighborhood and receives a reception several degrees less than warm.
The family of the man he killed rejects his pleas for forgiveness with ferocious hostility. His parole officer (Denis O’Hare) is a cynical scold who expects the worst of him. And even though he might want to reunite with Angela (Vergara), a sweetheart he told to move on and forget him after his manslaughter conviction, he’s pointedly warned by Billy (Yancey Arias), a cop who just happens to be her cousin, that she doesn’t need to have her heart broken again by a loser. Guilt-racked and humbled, Sonny finds it difficult to disagree.
Things don’t start to look up for Sonny until he’s hired as an assistant by a former coach, Harris (Michael Rispoli, star of “Two Bedroom House”), who’s now in charge of the State Island Empires, a fictional Yankees farm team. The job offer isn’t merely a favor: Harris needs Sonny’s expertise to sharpen the focus and discipline the slugging of Manny (Xavier Scott Evans), a hot-prospect hitter who thinks there’s nothing any old-timer — and especially an ex-con old-timer — can teach him. His low regard for the disgraced veteran is elevated only slightly when he, and Harris, see that, despite his long absence from the baseball diamond, Sonny can still swing for the fences.
Here and elsewhere, Robert Bruzio’s script is littered with clichés and contrivances. To give him credit, though, Bruzio, like De Felitta, knows better than to ever push things too far or strain credibility. As a result, “Bottom of the 9th” doesn’t make things easy for any of its sympathetic characters. (Rest assured, Manny eventually falls into that category, with a little help from Evans’ neatly balanced performance.) Small victories are hard won; relationships are warily forged or reconstituted. Sonny never really forgets the death he caused — and whenever it looks like he might, if only temporarily, there’s always someone there to remind him. (At one point, he’s seen reading James Clavell’s “King Rat,” perhaps because he can easily relate to its tale of wartime prisoners.) Still, he presses on, leading to an ending that hits the sweet spot between credibility and redemption.
As is often the case in baseball, it’s the small things that mean a lot in “Bottom of the 9th.” The gradual rekindling of a romance between Sonny and Angela, beautifully portrayed by Manganiello and Vergara, remains chaste throughout the film, as if to indicate that both characters aren’t entirely certain about what the future holds for them. Sonny has a difficult time mastering some innovations in the brave new world of post-prison life — cellphones, Lyft, etc. — but the audience is encouraged to laugh with, not at, the befuddled ex-con.
At other times, Sonny is quick to reject the encouragement of well-meaning friends who offer some variation of, “Everything happens for a reason.” Sonny will have none of that: “There’s only screw-ups and the consequences afterwards.” But the roles are reversed when Sonny tries to talk Nakahara (Masami Kosaka), a rehabilitating superstar, into returning for one more season after his latest injury. “Play every last game like it’s your last game,” Nakahara responds. “One day, you’ll be right.” Sonny takes those words to heart.