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Set in 1956 and ’57, The Long Game abounds in spectacular vintage cars, pristine and gleaming and a signal of the tidy shape of the movie’s narrative. That’s not to say there are no ups and downs, no setbacks and reversals in the drama that unfolds, but director Julio Quintana (The Vessel) has tailored it to reassure, using gentle comic strokes and zingy visuals to explore a true story of sports underdogs and their triumph against bigotry. Jay Hernandez provides the grounded enthusiasm as a high school administrator with a passion for golf and a vision of better things for Mexican Americans like him and his students. Together, he and his coltish team, dubbed the Mustangs, take on the country-club set, with Dennis Quaid providing effortless old-timer charm as a key ally and Cheech Marin on hand as a wiseass Yoda.
Hernandez plays JB Peña, a veteran of World War II who, as the story opens, has just moved to the border city of Del Rio, Texas, with his wife, Lucy (Jaina Lee Ortiz). He’s stepping into a new job, as school superintendent, but the real draw for JB is the Del Rio Country Club — not for its tony amenities or snobby membership but for its outstanding course. Yet even with the recommendation of JB’s war buddy Frank Mitchell, a golf pro played by Quaid (who worked with Quintana a few years ago on Blue Miracle), the club’s director (Richard Robichaux) tells JB he can play there only as a guest. The members, led by a blowhard judge named Judge Milton Cox (Brett Cullen), aren’t ready to welcome a Mexican into their midst.
The Long Game
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Dennis Quaid, Cheech Marin, Julian Works, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Brett Cullen, Oscar Nuñez, Paulina Chávez
Director: Julio Quintana
Screenwriters: Paco Farias, Jennifer C. Stetson, Julio Quintana; based on the book Mustang Miracle by Humberto G. Garcia
1 hour 52 minutes
For the five Mexican American high schoolers at the center of the story — only one of them, the excellent Julian Works’ Joe Treviño, is a fully developed character — Del Rio is a town whose white-picket-fence serenity barely hides something ugly. And sometimes it doesn’t bother trying to hide it: “No Dogs, No Mexicans,” signs on businesses warn. As caddies at the country club, Joe, Gene (Gregory Diaz IV), Felipe (Miguel Angel Garcia), Mario (Christian Gallegos) and Lupe (José Julián) deal regularly with the condescension of imperious cheapskate Cox and his shifty son (Michael Southworth). But on their own time, they’ve carved out a one-hole course on a patch of public land. Impressed with their dedication, and intrigued by their connection to Del Rio Country Club, JB invites the spirited quintet to form the San Felipe High School Golf Team.
Their scrappy leader and best player, Joe, takes some convincing, having internalized the skepticism of his father (Jimmy Gonzales, of Blue Miracle) toward so-called opportunities involving gringos. Countering that cynicism is golf course groundskeeper Pollo (Marin), observing Joe and the others from within his protective cage-suit and dispensing bits of wisdom from time to time. Frank balks at first too, rebuffing JB’s request that he serve as the Mustangs’ assistant coach. But friction, when it arises in The Long Game, is short-lived and never threatening, and soon everyone is on board, eyes on the Texas State High School Golf Championship. Tourney by tourney, they challenge entrenched privilege and prejudice, the boys embracing their newfound role as players.
From JB’s wartime flashback in the pre-title sequence to the forced hilarity involving the central characters and Principal Guerra (Oscar Nuñez, of The Office) on the first day of school, director Quintana struggles at first to find a tone and strike a stance. But he and his cast never lack for energy and a convincing sense of purpose, and, heading into the story’s back nine, the movie hits its stride.
The screenplay by Quintana, Jennifer C. Stetson and Paco Farias favors efficiency and directness over nuance. The privileged jerks who JB and his team encounter are also, of course, sore losers and cheaters. But to its credit, the film sidesteps predictable storylines, as when Frank’s ever-present flask simply disappears as he becomes more invested in the boys’ dream; without explanation, Quintana lets Quaid’s performance speak for itself. The golf metaphors about life, delivered by JB and Pollo, can’t quite shake off a sense of writerly indulgence, but at the same time they have a straightforward, common-sense precision.
Shot mainly in Colombia, with some Texas locations as well, the feature brims with verdant, rolling terrain and picture-book skies. The production designers, costume designers and DP Alex Quintana (the helmer’s brother) have conspired to bathe the proceedings in the bright summery sheen of soft greens, an apt signal of hope.
The Long Game doesn’t suggest that such hope arrives easily. At its core, the movie is about grace under pressure — not just for JB and the boys but for Lucy, too, as she faces the pettiness of country club wives (Mykle McCoslin and Heather Kafka). On the Mustangs’ path toward the state championship, JB sets a dress code and insists that the players speak only English on the course; to “look and act like we belong here” is, he believes, the essential first step toward true acceptance. As perceived outsiders, they need to not merely play by the rules but follow them to a T. The long game of the title is one of incremental advances, the unavoidable anger and hurt channeled into golf — and sometimes unleashed, because how long can anyone turn the other cheek when confronted with outright hostile stupidity?
Works’ terrific performance finds the fire and conflict in the seemingly self-assured Joe, who’s caught between the bitterness and managed expectations instilled in him by his father and the ambitions of his girlfriend (Paulina Chávez), who has her sights set on college and a career as a writer. However insistently celebratory it is, The Long Game acknowledges the complexities of the Mustangs’ story. Every shot of the Stars and Stripes pulses with sincerity and with irony. As reflected in the interplay between the soundtrack’s upbeat period songs and Hanan Townshend’s pensive score, the balancing act JB and his team have embarked on is not an easy one, but, it is the stuff movie moments are made of.
Production companies: Fifth Season, Mucho Mas Media, Bonniedale, Jaguar Bite
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Dennis Quaid, Cheech Marin, Julian Works, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Brett Cullen, Oscar Nuñez, Paulina Chávez, Gregory Diaz IV, Christian Gallegos, Miguel Angel Garcia, José Julián, Gillian Vigman, Richard Robichaux, Jimmy Gonzalez, Michael Southworth, Mykle McCoslin, Heather Kafka, Armando Rivera
Director: Julio Quintana
Screenwriters: Paco Farias, Jennifer C. Stetson, Julio Quintana
Based on the book Mustang Miracle by Humberto G. Garcia
Producers: Javier Chapa, Ben Howard, Dennis Quaid, Laura Quaid, Marla Quintana
Executive producers: Jay Hernandez, Phillip Braun, Jason Gerber, Christian Sosa, John Williams, Veronica B. Jones, Jennifer Kuczaj, Simon Wise, Colleen Barshop, Vincent Cordero, Simón Beltrán Echeverri, Juan Pablo Solano Vergara, Carlos Osorio, Humberto G. Garcia, Jesse Mandujano, Julio M. Quintana, Ricky Joshi, Brian Eddy, Jeff Grossberg, Jack Shemtov, Matthew Dwyer, David E. Campbell, Michael Hollingsworth, Tim Mahler, Jeff Moseley, Carter Pope
Director of photography: Alex Quintana
Production designers: Carlos Osorio, John Parker
Costume designers: Daniela Rivano, Akayla Nandi
Editor: James K. Crouch
Composer: Hanan Townshend
Casting directors: Alan Luna, Natalie Ballesteros, Beth Blanks
In English and Spanish
1 hour 52 minutes
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