The crack of the bat. The roar of the crowd. The smell of … buttered popcorn?
Hollywood is catering to audiences who are getting reacquainted with baseball after a winter hiatus, from the major leagues to our neighborhood Little League squads. Hopefully those who flocked to Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson biopic “42” last weekend are prepared for a doubleheader, because a new release with a baseball angle arrives in theaters and deserves a look.
Director David Boyd, who has worked on “The Walking Dead” and “Friday Night Lights,” applies what he learned about character-driven dramas to bolster “Home Run.” What might have been a woeful by-the-numbers, come-from-behind story benefits from welcome doses of sentimentality and rustic flavor.
This quietly gentle tale of personal redemption actually starts in an explosive way on a Class AAA baseball field, where all-star player Cory Brand (Scott Elrod) suffers a personal and professional meltdown resulting in the injury of an innocent batboy. Brand is an alcoholic, the product of a drunken, abusive father who casts a long shadow long after his death.
Before the athlete is forced to face the music for his destructive on-field actions, Brand’s savvy agent, Helene (Vivica A. Fox), comes up with a public relations solution. She enrolls her high-profile client in an off-the-beaten-path 12-step program in his hometown near Tulsa, where he agrees to coach the underachieving Little League squad and possibly mend fences with his equally damaged younger brother (James Devoti).
The premise sounds like an after-school special crossed with a “Bad News Bears” reboot, but “Home Run” strives for more than studio formulas, allowing the morality play to stand on its own merit. Boyd uses upbeat musical cues and sun-dappled cinematography to manifest an authentic small-town, minor-league atmosphere that’s warm and welcoming, even as it addresses potentially devastating personal problems.
There are religious undertones to “Home Run” as Brand labors through his rehabilitation, but Boyd doesn’t succumb to the pressure of clubbing his audience over the head with a metaphorical Louisville Slugger. The director trusts his cast to convey the message. They rise to the occasion.
It helps that Elrod, whose most notable credit to date is a bit part in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo,” elevates “Home Run” by satisfactorily playing a likable jerk. He wears an arrogant swagger for the film’s first act, then convincingly drops his protective armor as Brand picks up the pieces of his broken existence.
Those seeking riveting baseball sequences might leave frustrated. Boyd stocks his sports scenes with the usual roster of on-field clichés, as the down-on-their-luck Bulldogs start winning under Brand’s guidance, and our hero reconnects with an old flame (Dorian Brown), who conveniently co-coaches the squad.
Instead, “Home Run” is at its most unflinching – and therefore, absorbing – when it’s off the diamond. The strongest scenes take place in dingy hotel rooms, on a deserted farm or in the rehab sessions where Brand and his fellow addicts open their hearts in search of forgiveness. It’s during these moments that “Home Run” swings for the fences, and often connects.