30 January 2011

WHERE WERE YOU IN '62?

Ray Schmit's contribution to the Carry On Campaign was in service to seeing a review of one of his favorite childhood movies. Which is, I think, dangerous ground, but in this case I happened to rather like the movie he picked, though it was by no means part of my own childhood. You lucked out this time, Ray.

Given that every filmmaker was at some point a child, you'd assume that movies about childhood would be common; they are not. Or I should correct myself, good movies about childhood are not common. Movies about childhood that are usually sickeningly sweet affairs, with moronic adventure-comedy plotlines and improbably cunning dialogue and, increasingly, horrible pop music interludes - these are common.

But a movie about the life and times of children that is sincere, well-made, non-spastic, and, if you're lucky, honest (though that's really starting to ask too much of a grown-up screenwriter), now that is a rare find indeed and worth tending with some gentleness and affection. The Sandlot, from 1993, is by no means a perfect film about childhood: the second half begins to drift rather horribly into just the kind clumsy, overly big comic adventure showcase that the first half so easily avoids. Yet it is good, with flashes of very good, overlaid with a particularly thick wash of nostalgia that stubbornly refuses to go obnoxiously cloying. It's a nice film, that's what it is, a nice film that looks at the state of suburban American childhood in the early 1960s, the filmmakers thinking to themselves with a nod and a tiny smile, "Yes, I remember being a kid. I liked it."

Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1962, The Sandlot is the years-later reminiscence of a boy named Scotty Smalls (played by Tom Guiry on screen, and by director David Mickey Evans as narrtor) of the summer he and his mother (Karen Allen) and his emotionally distant stepfather (Dennis Leary) moved; almost totally ignorant as to anything and everything involved in the sport of baseball, Scotty nonetheless decides that his best and only hope of making friends is to pitch in with the kids who play a never-ending pick-up game in a large vacant lot in the neighborhood. His profound lack of skills or basic knowledge (in an early bit of foreshadowing, we learn that he's never heard of noted player Babe Ruth) makes him a laughingstock with the other boys at first, but when the sandlot's finest and seemingly oldest player, Benny Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), stands up for him and shows him the basics, Scotty becomes fully ensconced within this merry family of boys, sharing with them the idle adventures of a summer that, pace grown-up Scotty's enthusiastic narration, doesn't seem to be particularly significant or epochal to anybody but the nine boys involved. Which is precisely why it matters.

Essentially, The Sandlot tills in precisely the same fields as the arguably better-known A Christmas Story: a tremendously, even naïvely nostalgic look at Those Good Old Days When Things Were Simpler, narrated by the adult version of the main character, following the course of one season, laid out as a series of light comic events almost all centered around baseball, rather than one overriding narrative arc (The Sandlot goes even farther in this vein than A Christmas Story, which is loosely tied together by the protagonist's enduring quest for a BB gun). It is, like the earlier film, a nice smooth number that goes down easy and gives you a satisfying, warm feeling; while it's hard to suppose that any American boy's summer had this exact combination of life-lessons and playful incidents, it rather feels like they all ought to; and anyway, the film is dead on, tonally if nothing else, in its depiction of the spontaneity of pre-adolescence, the kind where you just up and become friends with anyone your age that you ever meet, and where every idea that floats across your brain is omigod the very best thing you could be doing right now. It's like a Norman Rockwell painting: corny and all, but awfully charming and seductive.

Up to a point, anyway. The film cleaves very neatly into halves: the first half is everything I just described, in all of its easygoing conservatism and sentimentality and warm sense of place and every other good or bad thing you could say about a light family comedy set in a '62 where any sort of racial, economic, or political imbalance is banished outright. There are a few clunky moments: most of the child actors are no better than the absolute minimum, and their characters are thinly drawn and most easily identified by one annoying character trait or another - the angry fat one (Patrick Renna), the noisy one with glasses (Chauncey Leopardi). But mostly, it's all good fun.

The second half, an extended anecdote about the horrible incident that changed everything for the sandlot kids that summer ("the Pickle" adult Scotty keeps remembering throughout his narration, and you can always hear that capital-P that makes it clear that this one event looms large in his personal narrative), when Scotty brought his stepdad's old baseball autographed by Babe Ruth, "some woman" as the boy puts it, to the playing grounds, and promptly knocks it into a neighboring yard where a big vicious dog resides (throughout the earlier part of the movie, the dog is played in snatches by oversized puppets, neatly visualising the tendency of childhood memories to make everything bigger than it really was). So begins a grinding series of comic attempts to retrieve the ball - I can only honestly think of them as hijinks. Hijinks! No other word promises funniness is coming, only for the fact to be profoundly, aggressively unfunny.* And when hijinks ensue,The Sandlot runs with abandon straight from "Soothing Americana" to "Crazy sci-fi parody with vacuum cleaners", and then comes the burly chase scene that is mostly noteworthy for introducing ten-year-olds since 1993 to the immortal strains of The Surfaris' "Wipe Out".

Facts are facts, and The Sandlot at no point till now has eschewed the silly joke or the over-the-top moment; but the completeness of the tonal shift that happens at this point still manages to throw the film off the rails and firmly turns what has been a fairly evocative and pleasing family film into a good-enough kiddie picture; and while the distinction between "kiddie picture" and "family film" might seem pedantic, it's of great importance. Eventually, the tone shifts back, but by then the damage is done; and really, the tone has only barely shifted back before a tremendously stupid finale in the American Graffiti mold, the "let me now tell you what happened to these characters" ending. Which is fine as far as it goes (there's a counter-culture joke that's delightfully unexpected), until we find out what happened to Benny and Scotty. It could be charitably described as "squirrelly", and it leaves a nasty aftertaste for a movie that generally begins better than it ends in all respects.

But when it clicks - the close-ups where Guitry, an excellent child actor for a first timer (and the young cast-member with the most successful career, by far, after 1993), shows all the embarrassment and hopefulness of being a kid in the summer; a magnificently earnest night-game lit by Independence Day fireworks - The Sandlot is one of the best kids' films I've seen from that era; and miles better than most of the hideousness that passes as kids' films today. It has a naturalness and sincerity that serve it well, and a sturdy classicism that has allowed it to age with far more grace than plenty of its fmore self-consciously pop-culture savvy brethren.

2 comments:

julienne said...

hi. do you recommend other movies about childhood from the 90s? I remember seeing a lot of that genre that decade..

boy on the dock said...

THanks much for this review. and if my 15 helps fight cancer, double good