Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Neglected Gem #76: The Sandlot (1993)

The cast of The Sandlot (1993).

I was furious to learn that the late Roger Ebert had once described The Sandlot as a summertime version of A Christmas Story, because that particular revelation, which I had thought was my own unique take, was how I had planned to open this review. Though they’re both seasonal coming-of-age stories set in the 1950s and 60s, sweet glimpses of a narrator’s childhood through a smudged nostalgic lens, The Sandlot doesn’t enjoy the same “classic” status that A Christmas Story does – although it’s easily just as good, which makes it a perfect candidate for the Neglected Gem treatment.

While Ralphie’s well-loved tale is filled with snow, Santa Claus, and Red Ryder BB guns, The Sandlot is a story about baseball, or at least about how baseball, during the hot and sticky summer of 1962, can be a crucible in which memories and friendships are forever forged. Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) is the new kid in town, as earnest and lily-white as they come, and desperate to make friends. The most likely candidates are the eight kids who spend every day in the neighbourhood sandlot, playing ball all day despite being one man short of a full team. Smalls, of course, doesn’t know how to play – but that doesn’t stop him from striding into the outfield, where he quickly finds a pop fly ball descending straight at him, which of course he fails to catch, to the howling mirth of the other kids. Only one – the local prodigy Benny Rodriguez (Mike Vitar) – doesn’t join in. Smalls tries to enlist the help of his detached stepfather (Denis Leary), who’s been promising to teach him to catch, but he’s a dismal failure in his own backyard, too. It’s only after Benny takes pity on him and offers some insight that it finally clicks for Smalls, and he’s instantly accepted onto the team, joining the ranks of Ham (Patrick Renna), Squints (Chauncey Leopardi), Yeah-Yeah (Marty York), and the rest of the boys.

Patrick Renna as Hamilton "Ham" Porter in The Sandlot.
The Sandlot is a sun-soaked dream, like vignettes of the perfect American summer: campouts in the treehouse, sodas in the shade, carnival rides, Fourth of July fireworks, lusting after the swimming pool lifeguard, Wendy Peffercorn (Marley Shelton), and of course, day after day getting scraped up playing ball in the sandlot – and living in perpetual terror of The Beast, a gigantic English mastiff who guards the backyard on the boundary of the sandlot’s outfield. According to Squints, over a hundred and fifty baseballs had disappeared over the fence, never to be seen again. Narrating the story as a grownup, Smalls bemoans his lack of baseball knowledge, which becomes the source of “the greatest pickle any of [them] had ever been in” when they lose their last ball to The Beast, and he volunteers his dad’s precious memento ball as a replacement. It, too, inevitably goes over the fence, but when Smalls tells them that it’s signed by “someone named ‘Baby Ruth’,” their pickup game turns into a life-and-death situation as they risk being torn to shreds in their effort to get the priceless artifact back.

While baseball acts as a framing device for the escapades of Smalls and the boys, The Sandlot is grounded more in the rose-tinted memories of youth, and in celebrating the fleeting moments of friendship that are inevitably torn apart by time and distance. There’s no “big game” to win – in fact, in the only real game of baseball in the film, the boys wipe the floor with their rich kid rivals – and while the others move away and grow up, only Benny and Smalls remain in touch (Benny goes on to join his hero The Great Bambino in the annals of baseball history as Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, and Smalls waves to him from the press box as a sports reporter). The film’s pleasures are simple, approaching neither the more complicated, slightly aged-up Indiana Jones-style thrills of The Goonies (1985) nor the heavy-hearted drama and serious end-of-innocence subject matter of Stand By Me (1986), content to borrow from these similar films to deliver its own brand of coming-of-age satisfaction. The Sandlot recreates the heightened twilight of adolescence, when the smallest events have the biggest significance (another example of its likeness to A Christmas Story , in which every seemingly-trivial moment of Ralphie’s life is a crackerjack story). The film takes on an almost mythic cast, where the boys’ reverence for the game is matched only by their primal fear of The Beast, whose supposedly evil deeds have been inflated through years of whispered rumour into local legend. Cameos from character actors like Art LaFleur as the ghost of Babe Ruth and James Earl Jones as Mr. Mertle, The Beast’s owner, not only echo their involvement in other baseball pictures like Field of Dreams (1989), but serve to reinforce the film’s distance from reality. Along with Leary’s intimidating stepfather, their characters represent the adult world that the boys are so close to joining, as unwilling participants in a raw deal that makes their memories of that first perfect summer that much more precious.

The Sandlot may not match its peers in production value or true dramatic potential, but helped strongly by an exceptional cast of child actors (who are all hilarious and memorable in their own way), and a terrific soundtrack full of late 50s and early 60s pop and soul standards, I think it deserves a spot in anyone’s seasonal film rotation – as perfectly matched to the hot early summer months as A Christmas Story is to the holidays.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.    

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