Producers: Jeff Celentano and Warren Ostergard   Director: Jeff Celentano   Screenplay: Angelo Pizzo and Scott Marshall Smith   Cast: Dennis Quaid, Colin Ford, Jesse Berry, Joelle Carter, Bonnie Bedelia, Randy Houser, Scott Glenn, Siena Bjornerud, Mila Harris, Ryan Dinning, Mason Gillett, Carina Worm, Hailey Bithell, Pilot Bunch, Mustapha J. Slack, Tyrik Johnson, James Devoti and David Silverman   Distributor: Briarcliff Entertainment

Grade: C

If you’re in the mood for an inspirational true-life sports story in the vein of “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” you might check out this one from Angelo Pizzo, who wrote the screenplays for both of those classics of the genre.  In terms of the games involved, Pizzo aims for a trifecta with “The Hill,” moving on from basketball and football to baseball.  He also changes location, going from Indiana to Texas, though the movie was shot, as so many are nowadays, in Georgia.  But the intention remains the same: to lift the spirits with a tale of unlikely underdog triumph, in this case that of a baseball-loving boy crippled by a degenerative spinal disorder who through sheer grit overcomes his condition to earn a place in the Minor Leagues through his prowess as a power hitter.

In the process he earns the respect and support of his father, a Baptist preacher who has always opposed his desire to play baseball, not only because of his fear that the boy’s constitution can’t take the physical strain but because he looks upon the game as a secular threat to his hope that his son will follow in his footsteps in the ministry.

The screenplay divides the story into two parts, roughly a decade apart.  For the first hour Jesse Berry plays eight-year old Rickey Hill, living with his older brother Robert (Mason Gillett) and sister Connie (Hailey Bithell) with their parents James (Dennis Quaid) and Hellen (Joelle Carter), as well as Hellen’s widowed mother Lilian (Bonnie Bedelia).  They’re desperately poor, with James struggling to lead a tiny, often obstreperous congregation in a small North Texas town.  Rickey, his legs encased in metal braces, dreams of playing baseball, and with encouragement from his siblings practices practicing hitting rocks with a stick so far that the distance impresses neighbor Ray Clemens (Randy Houser), a mechanic, even after one of the stones damages his windshield.  Rickey’s also the object of puppy-dog infatuation from sweet little Gracie Shantz (Mila Harris), a baseball player herself. 

But misfortune strikes the family when James is tossed from his job by disgruntled parishioners led by Gracie’s abusive, alcoholic father (James Devoti), and when their run-down car breaks down in the middle of the road, they’re miraculously rescued by an elderly couple who tell James of an opening for a pastor in the run-down church in nearby Bowie.  He takes the job, and the kids soon learn of a youth baseball team whose coach (David Silverman) urges James to allow Rickey to play after he sees him hit against their arrogant star pitcher (Pilot Bunch).  He refuses, but Robert risks his father’s wrath to forge his name on a permission slip.  Miraculously, Rickey is able to shed his braces and play.

Ten years or so later, as the film’s second hour opens, Rickey (now played by Colin Ford) is the star of the high school team in Bowie, whose home run against his old pitching nemesis wins the big game and encourages Ray to use his connections to get a scout come and see him play.  Gracie (now played by Siena Bjornerud) returns with a Houston sportswriter in tow to write about him.  The future seems bright.

But disaster strikes and Rickey fractures his ankle, tripping over a sprinkler in the outfield; the prognosis is not good—and just as a major competition for a potential MLB spot is imminent.  Can the money be raised for surgery, and even if it can, can Rickey recover fast enough to have a chance in the competition, presided over by crusty veteran Red Murff (Scott Glenn), who’s disinclined to give anybody special treatment?  And will Pastor James finally overcome his dismissal of his son’s dreams—he’s never even gone to see Rickey play—and show as much support as the rest of the family (Ryan Dinning now plays Robert, and Carina Worm Connie), Ray, and even one of his childhood friends, Jason (Tyrik Johnson, now the strapping Mustapha J. Slack), who’s also in the competition?

The fact that the movie is based on Hill’s actual experience mitigates the strain it puts on credulity to some extent, but it’s still so formulaic that you might be inclined to call it “Field of Clichés.”  The hardscrabble family existence it depicts—with production design by Geoffrey Kirkland and costumes by Lahly Poore—might summon “The Waltons” to mind.  And this is very much a faith-based movie: there’s a lot of prayer in it, on the part of father, son, and everyone in between.

And yet it will probably meet the expectations of viewers who like this sort of cannily manufactured uplift.  It boasts handsome widescreen cinematography by Kristopher Kimlin, and though the pacing by director Jeff Celentano and editor Douglas Crise is often sluggish and the score by Geoff Zanelli syrupy, that’s pretty much par for the course.  Quaid is, as usual, rather overwrought, and both Bedelia and Glenn play the cranky oldster card very heavily, but both Berry and Ford are likable as the younger and older versions of Rickey, Harris and Bjornerud are equally so as the two Gracies. The rest of the cast—including singer-songwriter Houser—are adequate.

Rickey frequently wallops the ball over the fence in his climb to glory in “The Hill.”  Unfortunately, the movie itself doesn’t match his accomplishment—it’s not a foul ball, but at best manages a single.