Director: David M. Evans
Typically film critics rail against the perils of predictability and contrivances in contemporary cinema, yet a different attitude seems to be adopted by most when it comes to the All-American genre of underdog sports film that never seems to go out of style. As San Francisco Chronicle writer Mick La Salle wrote, citing the similarity of the genre’s offerings, “Funny thing about theses sports movies. They’re all the same. They’re never bad… they’re rarely exceptional. In fact, their appeal may be their sameness.”
The Final Season is such a case—a warmhearted, inspiring film that despite its modest production values, works the same way that chicken soup does when one has a cold, or mashed potatoes and/or macaroni and cheese do after an awful day—it’s a film that comforts, nourishes, goes down easily and doesn’t ask too much in return. Similar to the quintessential underdog he played in Rudy (one of the best sports films of the 90’s), Sean Astin pulls double duty as both producer and star in this true story, playing unlikely high school baseball coach Kent Stock, who, at the tender age of twenty-four after just two months of assisting the legendary Coach Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe), finds himself taking over the Norway High School team.
After winning nineteen straight state championships under Van Scoyoc, the small Iowan community with a population of 586, that-- as the townspeople state-- grows baseball players similar to the crops on their farms, must come to terms with bureaucratic changes all made under the guise of “progress” that mandates that the Norway High School Tigers will be playing their final season before merging with the larger Madison High School.
As illustrated in the film, the vindictively villainous School Board President Harvey Makepeace (Marshall Bell) fires Coach Van Scoyoc out of petty spite and, in the hopes of sabotaging the team’s last competitive year, replaces the coach with the impossibly young, earnest Stock whose only experience heading up a team on his own was as a girl’s volleyball coach.
While the primary focus of The Final Season is on the development of the team and interplay between the Norway community, other subplots are introduced and, despite engaging us from the outset, are given little time to satisfactorily develop such as a terrific storyline about a rebellious Chicago teen played by Forbidden Kingdom star Michael Angarano whose widowed father (Tom Arnold) drops him off with his Norway grandparents in the hopes that the change of scenery will turn the young man around.
Angarano, who has some great scenes that beg for more exploration including a few confrontations with the film’s most valuable player, Powers Boothe, is shortchanged by the film. Yet these few time-wasting subplots aside including a likable turn by Rachael Leigh Cook as Stock’s love interest, The Final Season is further proof of director David M. Evans’s love of America’s favorite pastime following his terrific family classic The Sandlot, which he’d also penned.
Another solid and slightly above average entry into the overcrowded underdog sports genre, the film manages to further compel audiences with its timely storyline of small communities like Norway becoming ghost-towns when economic and political issues force them to close their schools, leading to devastating effects as businesses follow suit, which is something that seems to be hitting us yet again in the wake of our struggling economy.