'The Hill' celebrates time-tested formula for dad-and-son baseball dramas

“The Hill” - ★ ★ ★

“The Hill” is alive with the sound of sports movie cliches, yet, this fact-based drama oozes with such sincerity and respect for its characters that it feels fresh right off the bat.

Jeff Celentano's “The Hill” could be described as a blend of Barry Levinson's “The Natural,” John Lee Hancock's “The Rookie” and a faith-based Christian indie drama, but in a good, inspirational way.

Like “The Hill,” both “The Natural” and “The Rookie” tell well-wrought father-and-son stories advocating the courage to pursue your sports dreams.

All three titular characters suffer physical challenges. The Natural carries an unremovable bullet in his body. The Rookie, based on high school science teacher Jim Morris, discovers he has a 98-mph pitching arm - but at the age of 35.

Young Rickey Hill (a winning Jesse Berry) suffers from a degenerative spinal disease and must wear cumbersome, ill-fitting leg braces to walk.

Rev. James Hill (Dennis Quaid) must make a hasty retreat from his Texas church with his mother-in-law (Bonnie Bedelia) and his son (Mason Gillett) in the fact-based drama "The Hill." Courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment

He loves baseball (especially his Mickey Mantle trading card) and practices batting every chance he can, using a thick stick to blast stones into the air. One of the stones cracks the windshield of a truck owned by football player and coach Ray Clemons (country music singer Randy Houser), so astonished by the sheer distance the rock traveled that he eventually becomes Rickey's de facto guardian angel.

In a nuanced performance that almost makes up for his embarrassing cameo in “Strays,” Dennis Quaid plays Rickey's gruff father, Rev. James Hill, who refuses to let him play sports. Even after Rickey shows promise on the diamond, Dad never goes to see his son play. (Movie fans might recall that in “The Rookie,” Quaid played the Rickey part, a character who dreams of being a professional ballplayer, even though his gruff father never supported him or came to see his son play.)

“The Hill” begins during the 1960s in a tiny impoverished Texas town where Rev. Hill struggles to raise his family on a paltry $50 a month while he delivers dry, monotonous sermons about Goliath to disinterested parishioners who decorate the church floor with cigarette butts and tobacco spit.

When Hill demands respect for the House of God, the congregation fires him, forcing him to pack up the car and leave with Rickey, his mom (Joelle Carter), grandma (Bonnie Bedelia) and two siblings (Mila Harris and Mason Gillett).

They have no place to go, no job to support them, no gas in the car and a blown tire.

In the fact-based sports drama "The Hill," Rev. James Hill (Dennis Quaid) stops for a moment of roadside prayer during a dark moment in his life. Courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment

Cue the obligatory rainstorm.

“The Hill” traffics in plenty of faith-based movie conventions (Geoff Zanelli's treacly score confirms this), most of them involving well-timed miraculous events and topically appropriate Bible verses.

Celentano, operating from a dense screenplay from Angelo Pizzo, Scott Marshall Smith and an uncredited Celentano, takes a holistic approach to these characters, none of them simplistic heroes or villains, simply flawed humans struggling to find their way through formidable challenges in an unpredictable world.

Except, of course, “The Hill” faultlessly fulfills all sports movie expectations even as Rickey (now an empathetic Colin Ford) grows up to become a high school student given an improbable shot at the major leagues by crusty veteran baseball scout Red Murff (a grizzled Scott Glenn, reuniting with his “Right Stuff” co-star Quaid).

After watching Quaid in “The Rookie,” I wondered if its sappy, predictable ending really happened. An interview with Jim Morris confirmed it did.

Apparently, dreams aren't the only thing that come true in baseball dramas.

So do sports cliches.

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Colin Ford, Jesse Berry, Joelle Carter, Bonnie Bedelia, Randy Houser, Scott Glenn

Directed by: Jeff Celentano

Other: A Briarcliff Entertainment theatrical release. Rated PG. 126 minutes

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