Focus Features 116 minutes R
Writer/Director Richard Linklater took us back to the 70’s in Dazed and Confused and now in this companion piece, he takes us back to Texas in the disco, punk and country 1980’s. Some call it his “spiritual sequel.”This is not a baseball movie, even though it’s about ball players bonding as they come of age and morph into a team in college.
Linklater says he came up with the idea in 2002, thinking about his college years and what comes with it, including making friendships, competition, and new found freedom to make all kinds of good and bad choices. He actually played baseball in college in Texas and lived in a baseball house; two houses side by side, just like in the movie.
Basically, he says, it’s a time when you try to figure out who you are in the world. But he smiles saying he knew it would be fun to do this film and his cast agrees. They bonded in 8 weeks of rehearsal on a Texas ranch before they even started shooting and call it the best time ever. And they stayed away from phones and computers as much as possible to be like the 80’s era they were playing in. And now the actors say they’re trying to do the same to live more in the moment without those distractions. It was different time.
The film is about a new crop of freshman ballplayers that have landed on campus and have to deal with the upper class characters already on the team. It’s like a frat where the established initiate the new, young blood and show ‘em the ropes as well as who’s boss.
Jake (Blake Jenner) is known for his role as the singing football player Ryder on Glee. He’s good lookin’ and likable in his role as the central character. We see everything through his eyes.
If there’s anything that rings false in the script it’s that Linklater has given way too much savvy, perspective and social smarts to Jake who is supposedly an 18 year old kid just starting college. He’s much more mature than the older players, and we do mean “players,” who put the new kids through it with some very creative hazing. Wait till you see what they add to batting practice!
Juston Street, Ryan Guzman (Step Up), Tyler Hoechlin (Teen Wolf) , Glen Powell, J. Quinton Johnson, Temple Baker, play the team. They all play ride the fine line between being kids and adults.
Wyatt Russell plays (Willoughby), a philosopher fueled by pot and hash popular on campuses at that time. He is very mellow, into music and kind of a flower child who’s funny. He’s a latter day hippie who spouts the line, “ Be who you are, never what they want.”
Linklater says the key was finding the actors who brought their own spirit and the fun never stopped. The story is really just following these guys around. It’s not about punch lines, but about situations these guys get into and how they react with others and each other. They bond, then gang up on each other, and then stand up for each other.
But they can all play baseball. You don’t get to see that in action until later when we get to know them as individuals. Linklater says he actually knew a couple of guys from his college days that are like two of the characters in the movie. McReynolds, who is the character who’s better than anyone else. And miles, the crazy pitcher who reminded us Weird Al Yankovich.
The locker room scene is particularly well done and all in one take. And the hazing, putting the new guys up against the wall as the strike zone for batting practice was painful to watch but funny. And seeing these guys play baseball was entertaining. Miles on the mound is something to see.
There’s a lot of philosophizing in this movie. Some of it felt on the mark and some just seemed foolish. Just like it was when we were back in college. We see the 80’s culture following the guys through three different parties. There’s the disco, which they had to take dance lessons for, and wear tight pants and Travolta style shirts for. The actors teased each other for that one. Then they go to a punk performance where they jump into the mosh pit. And end up doing the Cotton Eye Joe at a Country Bar. It’s all a slice of life in that era and the guys get exposed learning a little bit more about fine art.
Yes, some of the girls the guys hit on are just conquests, but Linklater allows many of the women to be just as smart and horny as the guys. They’re not all bimbos. Jake’s first college crush is a sweet young thing who’s a theater major who invites him to a theater party. His teammates invite themselves thinking it will be something to mock, but find out otherwise. Who says college isn’t the place to learn, outside of class even more.
Is this worth your bucks? Linklater calls it a party. Obviously, it was a good time and place for he and his actors to be. He says it’s not life and death but a place where you can have fun hanging with these people for less than two hours. With this movie, Linklater proves he can hit the curve ball.