TEXAS, USA — There’s one question I imagine went through Julio Quintana’s mind as he was preparing to direct “The Long Game” – a chronicle of the Mexican-American high school golfers who endured racism to win the state title in 1957 – that audiences will surely also ask when they read that logline: How do you make golf cinematic?
The sport doesn’t have the luxury of being as breathless as basketball, after all, nor does it lend itself to high-stakes filmmaking as organically as a pitcher and slugger’s showdown. How do you reinvent the wheel when it hasn’t been invented in the first place, when the putting green is cinematically most associated with meeting places for CEOs and big shots?
It’s a quandary. Quintana deserves credit, then, for understanding it isn’t necessarily up to him to solve it. True to the movie’s unabashed throwback feel, the point of the occasional scenes of golf competition sprinkled throughout “The Long Game” isn’t so much the power of any one drive, but the face of the golfer swinging away, his eyes squinting into the distance towards a place only he can see. Perhaps it’s toward a future made better for Mexican-Americans, thanks to the cracks this team is putting in those barriers now.
A tidy metaphor? Perhaps. But Paco Farias and Jennifer Stetson’s script is deft at laying the bricks of convention in spots where Quintana’s filmmaking swagger can energize this underdog story. Despite all the countless times this era has been rendered onscreen, you find yourself drawn in by the casual pace of life to his rendition of 1950s small-town Texas and the rather astonishing visual intimacy to our exploration of it. The camera establishes an early willingness to get up close to or even between characters during conversation, creating an emotional urgency while making it easier to disguise flatness in the performances.
The style certainly helps us get into the good graces of JB Peña (Jay Hernandez), a newcomer to Del Rio, the new superintendent of the local district and a golfer in his own right. Played by Hernandez with handsome but one-dimensional awh, hell energy and haunted by some measure of unfinished business, the military veteran has a habit of getting up at 3 a.m. to swing away in the backyard, as if refining his confidence for some bigger task he knows is yet to come. As we said: Metaphors.
Whatever destiny JB thinks awaits him, he likely doesn’t expect it to bust through his windshield when driving through the South Texas hills. The delivery is courtesy of the young ragamuffins he’ll come to coach as the city’s first golf team–a talented bunch excluded from playing at the elite course they work at as a caddies (instead they create an impressive-looking course of their own, a sort of hidden paradise where they won’t be bothered). JB awh-hell’s his way past any lingering grudge; he sees a bigger opportunity in their potential than hitting golf balls into the windows of passing cars.
The narrative sets off apace, mostly centering on the team’s budding willingness to confront casual racism – the diner servers who ignore them, the white teams who add strokes to their score – in order to bring glory back to Del Rio. Dennis Quaid gifts the movie with a veteran actor’s easygoing, soft presence as assistant coach Frank Mitchell, and pre-eminent attraction Cheech Marin’s Pollo is so lived-in you almost wish the movie were told through his perspective. The period details are reliably on point, as is the pivotal suggestion that while there’s pride in individuality, there’s purpose in being seen.
As the team bounces around from regional tournament to regional tournament building up a reputation, their mission comes to have a stately, almost militaristic verve that feels informed by JB’s perspective. Like any good coach he preaches discipline and humility, though when the familiar trumpet notes of war films sneak their way into this one it might give you pause: What does this story about Latino triumph and rule-breaking have to gain from adhering to such devoutly American temperament?
Whatever the answer, it’s easy to root on the subjects of this story–and easier to understand their initial skepticism about using their talents as a way to garner respectability. “The Long Game” has enlisted some charismatic actors to play the five amigos, and though they have wonderful chemistry whenever they’re together, four of them are fairly indistinguishable from each other.
The fifth is Joe Trevino (Julian Works), the de facto anchor to this team’s potential as well as some of the script’s more nuanced stretches about Mexican-American identity and self-worth. Works manages to give the character a vulnerable dimension that’s easy to spot under his hardy exterior. The team goes as Joe goes, but so does the movie, and “The Long Game’s” textured production design pairs up nicely with the young athlete slowly embracing his role as community hero.
“The Long Game” premiered to passionate response at South By Southwest last weekend, an indication that the effects of this chapter of Texas history still loom large. And the film’s exploration of Mexican-American identity is far more intentional than kinetic fellow festival selection “Flamin’ Hot.” One key, eye-opening scene sees the boys excitedly skipping to Mexico for an evening – “our homeland,” they call it – where they receive the rude awakening that ancestry alone won’t guarantee you a warm welcome. For such a complicated idea to emerge from the relatively safe filmmaking confines of “The Long Game” feels like Quintana rediscovering the potential of a genre.
"The Long Game" screened in the Narrative Spotlight section of the 2023 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. It's currently awaiting distribution.
Starring Jay Hernandez, Dennis Quaid, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Julian Works
Directed by Julio Quintana; written by Paco Frias and Jennifer Stetson, adapting the novel "Mustang Miracle" by Humberto G. Garcia
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