Based on a true story, The Hill comes from director Jeff Celentano (Breaking Point), who attempts to strike a home run with this baseball tale. Creatively, the bases never feel fully loaded here and there’s never a sense that things won’t get resolved. That the film goes into overtime — literally — is another story. Despite all that, if you can have a little patience, when all is said and done, Celentano does justice to the real-life story of a celebrated baseball player, beginning with his childhood in the 1970s and moving through young adulthood where he was further confronted with his physical injuries and filial strife.
The film, which arrives from Briarcliff Entertainment, stars Dennis Quaid, Joelle Carter, country music singer and songwriter Randy Houser, Bonnie Bedelia, Scott Glen, and Jesse Berry and Colin Ford as Rickey Hill at various ages. It’s your typical inspirational fare.
A Story We’ve Experienced Before
The Hill has a lot going for it, but there comes a point about 20 minutes in when the déjà vu hits. Haven’t we been here before? Maybe in a streaming series? Maybe in another film? Even another Dennis Quaid film? You wish that sensation away as The Hill moves through its first hour, but it’s an unavoidable feeling until the film’s second half, which, despite being based on a true story, somehow holds the same kind of creative rhythm of other stories.
Young Rickey Hill (Jesse Berry from Good Trouble) is moving through childhood in an impoverished small-town Texas setting. Rickey has a knack for hitting a baseball, surprising perhaps to some people because he’s riddled with leg braces he has to wear due to a degenerative spinal disease. If that’s not enough challenge, his father (Dennis Quaid) is a stern pastor whose constant discouragement to pursue baseball leaves Rickey feeling a befuddled if not restless.
The first hour of the film captures the push-pull dynamic between father and son. Rickey’s mom (Joelle Carter) can’t do all that much to ease the dilemma, and the pressure to become a preacher like his father is omnipresent for Rickey. These scenes could use some editing, as they tend to overstay their welcome. In 2023, when audiences are used to stories that are told beyond traditional linear formats, you wonder if employing more fluidity, moving back and forth through time, would have helped the overall endeavor.
Quaid seems to be in a rinse-and-repeat role. Or, at least in yet another film where he plays a stalwart figure at the forefront of a family dilemma. The story really takes off once Colin Ford enters the picture playing Rickey as a young man. The Walker and Dahmer-Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story star is captivating on screen. He holds a rare on-screen élan, and his acting chops seem to keep being refined. This is especially evident as Rickey begins heading down the road to becoming the phenom that he was. Like real life, he’s paired with a major league scout Red Murff (Scott Glenn playing Scott Glenn) in the film — Rickey must impress Murff to get into professional baseball, but Murff’s presence divides the family.
Before the Game
To be sure, the tale of Rickey Hill is a heart-tugging, encompassing real-life drama that touches on themes some audiences could relate to or strive for: faith, unwavering perseverance, and honing one’s talents. Toss in some childhood hardship and intense physical ailments emerging from a life of physical pain, and mix it in with living in the shadow of a loving yet stern father, and it all seemed to look good on paper.
It did. But there’s something amiss in the execution of this tale. For starters, the film is bloated, running just over two hours. That’s a lot to take in for a movie that may not require so much time to tell an effective story. Ideally, The Hill could have worked at 90 minutes.
Director Jeff Celentano (Glass Jaw, Breaking Point) reportedly began the project some 15 years ago when a bit of serendipity came his way. His brother had been sitting in a hotel lobby and the stranger next to him happened to be Rickey Hill. The man was chatting on the phone, discussing how plans for a film about his life had collapsed. Well, who wouldn’t take that as a “sign” to consider making a movie about the man after hearing his story.
Celentano ventured to Texas to meet Michael A. Blubaugh, who owned the rights to Hill’s tale, and the journey to the screen began in a new way. Angelo Pizzo came on board as screenwriter; Pizzo was the mastermind behind the David Anspaugh-directed phenom that was Hoosiers in 1986. The story about an Indiana high school basketball team in the 1950s starred Gene Hackman and became one of the most popular sports-related films in history.
The Hill doesn’t capture the magic Hoosiers held, but most of its cast does a fine job with the material it has been given. It would have been nice to shine the spotlight a bit more on Hill after childhood. The front half of the film tends to weigh things down. Still, this faith-based offering manages to uplift and be traditionally inspiring, despite some of its setbacks. To that end, hallelujah.
The Hill opens in theaters Aug. 25.
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