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The Long Game

by Dwight Brown, NNPA Film Critic
Julian Works and Dennis Quaid costar in The Long Game. (photo courtesy of Anita Fallón)

(**1/2) 

Watching people beg and fight for equal access and dignity is sobering. But that’s what happened in the ‘50s before the anger and upheaval of the ‘60s civil rights movements. Gaining equality wasn’t easy back then.

Life in small town Del Rio, Texas in 1955 is a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the country. Those who have power and all the toys want to keep them. That’s what the WWII marine veteran JB Peña (Jay Hernandez, Magnum P.I.) encounters when he and his wife Lucy (Jaina Lee Ortiz) move into town. Peña, who’s becoming superintendent of the Latino school district, is an avid golfer. He wants to become a member of the nearby, all-white Del Rio Country Club, which has the area’s only golf course. Good luck with that.

The educator thought his inroad into the club would be his endorsement by his old infantry buddy from the 141st regiment Frank Mitchell (Dennis Quaid), who is the club’s teaching pro. But the Del Rio’s director (Richard Robichuax) and head member (Bret Cullen) deny Peña entry based on his heritage and skin color. Being treated badly for being brown-skinned Latinos is what the young caddies at the club face, too. They love the game but can’t play on the course. They’ve fashioned their own Ts and greens on the harsh brush lands of South Texas. That’s where they secretly practice swings, putting and the steely concentration it takes to play the game. Destiny will bring the determined leader and worthy athletes together.

America is built almost entirely on the people who jump over the high hurdles as they turn dreams into achievements. That universal spirit is captured in this based-on fact movie that’s been retold by writer/director Julio Quintana whose passion is telling stories about hope. It’s a style that touches on the faith-based genre but isn’t specifically religious. His previous movies The Vessel, about the rebuilding of a school after a Tsunami, and Blue Miracle, children from an orphanage enter a fishing competition, attests to his penchant for heartening melodramas.

Cowritten with Paco Farias and Jennifer Stetson, the very generic screenplay doesn’t paint outside the lines. The main protagonist and his wife are set up early. The teen boys, secondary protagonists, are even more vulnerable, likable, needy and will easily earn audiences’ empathy: Felipe (Miguel Angel Garcia), José (José Julián), Gene (Gregory Diaz IV), Mario (Christian Gallegos) and the group’s rambunctious leader, the very sulky Joe (Julian Works). Wisely the script pans out Joe’s character with a high school love interest (Paulina Chávez) and a father (Jimmy Gonzales) very skeptical of his son playing a white man’s sport.

History has it, as recorded in the book Mustang Miracle, by Humbert G. Garcia, the boys and JB would form the high school golf team the “San Felipe Mustangs.” They’d worm their way on to the Del Rio course, compete and vie for the Texas State Championship. Along the way viewers witness all the humiliation, setbacks and derision the team and its mentors faced.

At film’s end, a photo of the real Mustang team is revealed. The kids looked rougher, less like they’re from a Hollywood casting call. Their clothes aren’t as clean and pressed (costume designers Akayla Nandi and Daniela Rivano). It’s likely their houses and schools weren’t as perfect (production designer Carlos Osorio and John Parker). And it’s a good guess that the music swirling in the kid’s heads wasn’t so much American tunes and overly sweet violins (musical score, Hanan Townsend), but more likely Tejano (Tex-Mex) music, which isn’t represented enough on the soundtrack.

This is a historical drama. The little guys against the boogeymen villains emboldened by racism and prejudice, which is manifested in white antagonists. Adult bullies and cheating high school golfers who make the lives and ambitions of the team hell, until the budding golfers find ways to reach their goals, regardless. Viewers can guess where the storyline is going but will still credit the script for tossing viable challenges in their path. Also, some may wish the whole approach was less perfect and more roughhewn. Cinematic realism or a cinema verité filmmaking approach would have served the material better and made the footage (cinematographer Alex Quintana) more gripping. As is, the production elements are too neat. Too homogenized. Like a Lifetime network TV production. Average instead of extraordinary.

Thankfully, there are moments when the script’s character arcs are deeper than expected. JB as the make-no-waves Latino needs to grow out of his “please the white guy” comfort zone. He warns the kids: “I don’t wanna hear Spanish on the course ever. We have to look and act like we belong here.” Some won’t like his pandering. Others will deem him pragmatic. But by modern standards his fawning seems archaic. Joe is his exact opposite. Says and does what he feels. The group is called the Mustangs, but Joe is the only one who embodies a free spirit. The man and the teen learn from each other.

There are also heated moments when the social ills that oppressed many in 1950s America are specific to JB and his kids. E.g., when the kids aren’t served in a diner because they’re Latino. Or JB’s feelings about fighting in WWII and his cold reception back in The States: “Served my country, but when we came back. There were no parades.” Sound familiar?

 Easy to like all the performances. Hernandez is a leading man who should command more top-billing opportunities. Quaid is sufficient in a style of film that’s become his trademark. Ortiz and Chávez play the wife and girlfriend well with characters that add a lot to the plotline. The young actor Julian Works, as Joe, has enough talent to star in a TV series. The real life of the party is the legendary Cheech Marin, of Cheech and Chong fame. As the humorous groundskeeper Pollo, he has a shaman’s wisdom. “No one can stop a man who can get out of a bunker.”

These kinds of stories need to be told. They fill in the blanks. The spaces where groups like Mexican Americans achieved, despite all the roadblocks and degradation. What’s on view isn’t easy to watch. Sometimes it’s humiliating. But the inroads forbearers made, is why new generations thrive today.

When you look at the big picture, at stories like the breakthrough of the Del Rio Mustangs, films like The Long Game become treasured archives. Noble missions. A reason to watch.

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