The Long Game tells the story of JB Pena (Jay Hernandez), a World War II veteran who becomes the superintendent of a Texas high school consisting mainly of Latin Americans. After encountering a group of Mexican-American caddies who show a talent for golf, he recruits them to form the San Felipe High School’s first golf team. In their way are the ever-present administrators of a local golf course who don’t hide their disdain for racial minorities.
Teaming up with JB Pena is fellow veteran Frank Mitchell (Dennis Quaid), who serves as a mentor to the team as well as their defender. Together, Pena, Mitchell, and the “Mustangs” make history as young golfers while paving the way for Latino golfers to follow their dreams.
Julio Quintana’s The Long Game is a timely movie. The film explores the little-known story of a team of young Mexican American golfers who face off against bigotry and come out on top. Although taking place over half a century ago, Quintana’s film will resonate with today’s audiences as the issues of racism rear their heads in the headlines. Unfortunately, The Long Game’s flaws keep it from being truly great.
Quintana’s film follows an all-too-familiar pattern of young men from humble roots trying to earn respect through sport. The coach is a battle-hardened mentor trying to make a connection with rebellious youth, the bad boy of the group proves to be a master sportsman, their bigger and better opponents hurl ugly taunts their way and get humbled, etc.
Coupled with montages and inspirational speeches galore, this ever-predictable pattern kills the tension needed to follow the film.
Midway through, a sentimental moment between Frank Mitchell and the team veers off into another tournament montage, followed immediately by a montage of the team going to prom. This is supposed to be one of the high moments of the plot, but its delivery is too abrupt and clunky. The big tournament – where all the boys finally prove themselves to naysayers – follows a similar pattern. There’s a slow-motion montage of the boys golfing, along with other shots of rival players losing the match. There’s a brief confrontation between one Mustang and a racist rival, but otherwise, the scene doesn’t have its intended impact.
Quintana could have spared us some of these montages and sentimental episodes. In their place could have been more moments where the Mustangs live their individual lives as teenagers apart from being up-and-coming golfers. The film focuses more on Pena and Mitchell, as it should, but Quintana sacrifices the personal development of the Mustangs as a result. These weaknesses don’t completely derail the film, though.
The cast is wonderful and passionate in their portrayals. Jay Hernandez easily steals the show as JB Pena, a school superintendent who risks losing everything for doing the right thing. He stays confident in front of his team but is privately torn between losing his career and failing those he cares about. Hernandez’ mix of confidence and vulnerability makes him perfect for telling the story of JB Pena, a little-known figure who will easily inspire newcomers seeing this film.
Dennis Quaid, as always, delivers a wonderful portrayal of a grizzled golfing coach who tries to navigate the waters between coaching a team and preserving his reputation among his peers. The Mustangs are all lively as teenagers trying to enjoy their youth while becoming golfers, and Quintana also treats us to the humor of Cheech Marin, who plays the quirky groundskeeper. Although a silly side character who acts as the team’s personal cheerleader, Marin never fails to deliver much-appreciated one-liners.
While The Long Game contains the usual tropes of a sports drama, newcomers will easily be touched by the story of young teenagers overcoming odds in a period of racial discrimination. Its approach may be predictable, but The Long Game still delivers a thoughtful true story for anyone to relate to.
Review screener provided.
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