'All Square': Film Review

Gambling-themed gem breaks even and then some.

Michael Kelly plays a small-time bookie in John Hyams' Maryland-set comedy-drama.

Prime "that guy" actor Michael Kelly seizes a rare leading role with both eager hands in All Square, John Hyams' agreeably blue-collar tale of bookmaking and Little League baseball. Based on a deceptively sharp screenplay by highly promising newcomer Timothy Brady, this accessible and cumulatively engrossing indie won the Audience Award in its section when premiering at SXSW and has since picked up further notable honors at smaller U.S. festivals.

Overseas audiences have also been receptive to screenings at Galway and Oldenburg during the summer and early fall, despite the subject matter and milieu appearing at first glance intrinsically American. And while clearly a dicey box-office prospect in the current blockbuster-dominated climate, these prizes and attendant positive reviews could conceivably be parlayed into limited theatrical distribution in receptive markets.

The name of Hyams is already very well known to certain sections of the sci-fi/action/fanboy community for his exhilarating revival of a moribund third-tier franchise with Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012). That double whammy seemed set to launch the director towards the Hollywood big leagues — following in the footsteps of his father Peter (Capricorn One, Outland, Running Scared). But in the intervening six years, Hyams has worked exclusively in television (Z Nation, The Originals, Chicago P.D.).

All Square confirms that he's considerably more than just an "action guy," although it's telling that he pulls off a small handful of violent interludes with energetic aplomb. And the latter stages move towards some surprisingly dark territory, given the genial bounciness of the early stretches. Relying heavily on self-deprecating first-person narration, these take us into the financially tenuous world of illegal bookie John "Zibs" Zbikowski (Kelly), whose clients ("a book full of degenerate gamblers") mainly comprise his friends and neighbors in the real-life middle-class Baltimore suburb of Dundalk.

Zibs is willing to take bets (on credit) on just about any activity — an entrepreneurial flexibility that ultimately lands him in big trouble — but feels a particular affinity for baseball, the sport in which he himself once excelled. Now a fortyish dude some way past his physical prime, the never-married Zibs sees himself as performing a kind of community service for his customers. Events will, however, forcibly make him realize that his relationship to his gamblers is more parasitical than benign, and that he himself may not be the nice, easy-going mensch he (and initially we) believes himself to be.

Crucial to this process is his unlikely friendship with Brian (Jesse Ray Sheps), the junior high schooler son of his old flame Debbie (Pamela Adlon), who has somewhat optimistic major league ambitions of his own. Avoiding hazardous traps of life-lessons corniness in the development of the quasi-paternal friendship between Zibs and Brian — whose name is, for reasons best known to the scriptwriter, barely mentioned until the finale — Hyams and Brady instead construct an unsentimental vision of suburban sports-dominated lives very much in the tradition of Michael Ritchie's The Bad News Bears (1976).

It's a robust testament to their achievement that All Square doesn't feel significantly diminished in comparison to that fondly remembered semi-classic and stands on its own as a small-scale enterprise which makes some telling points about much bigger issues relating to American society, sports and community ties.

Handled with unobtrusive professionalism in all departments, the film benefits greatly from Brady's novelistic attention to character and milieu. His creations are given three-dimensional life by a flavorsome ensemble cast — with House of Cards scene-stealer Kelly and the appealing Sheps at the center. Casting director Meredith Tucker has assembled a craggy gallery of skilled character players, including the seasoned likes of Harris Yulin (as Zibs' clapped-out pops) and Isiah Whitlock Jr.

Scored in a jazzy, snazzy style by four credited composers and shot in sunny widescreen by Yaron Levy in palpably lived-in locations, All Square has the air of an unashamedly old-fashioned picture which will, sleeper-style, accumulate a devoted band of fans and admirers as the years go by. It's just the kind of movie "they don't make anymore," apart from when they do.

Production companies: Mill House Motion Pictures, Paper Clip
Cast: Michael Kelly, Jesse Ray Sheps, Josh Lucas, Harris Yulin, Pamela Adlon, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Yeardley Smith, Tom Everett Scott
Director: John Hyams
Screenwriter: Timothy Brady
Producers: Ben Cornwell, Jordan Foley, Michael Kelly, Jonathan Rosenthal, Yeardley Smith
Cinematographer: Yaron Levy
Production designer: Tiffany Zappulla
Costume designer: Christina Hribar
Editor: Neil Fazzari
Composer: Steve Dueck, Max Knouse, Michael Krasner, Robin Vining
Casting director: Meredith Tucker
Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival
Sales: The Festival Agency, Paris (ed@festivalagency.com)

100 minutes