SXSW Review: “The Long Game”

When we talk about sports that are inherently cinematic, golf isn’t typically one that leaps to my mind. The first films I, at least, think of that revolve around golf are comedies that lampoon the sport’s frequent catering to the upper crust, like Caddyshack or Happy Gilmore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (both of those movies are very funny), but it’s nice to see an inspiring true story where golf—and the class and racial divides that play into it—is at the heart of the action. Enter director Julio Quintana’s The Long Game, based on Humberto G. Garcia’s book Mustang Miracle.

The Long Game opens in 1956 in the tiny border town of Del Rio, Texas, where JB Peña (Jay Hernandez) has just moved with his wife Lucy (Jaina Lee Ortiz) to start a new job as a school superintendent. JB holds other interests in Del Rio, however; an avid golfer, he wants to join the town’s prestigious country club solely for its spectacular course. But even with the recommendation of his war buddy Frank Mitchell (Dennis Quaid, who also worked with Quintana on the Netflix film Blue Miracle), he’s informed by the club’s director that he would only be able to play there as a guest of one of the members. The white members of the club just aren’t ready to see a Mexican—who usually caddy under them—among their ranks.

At the same time, a group of Mexican-American high schoolers who work at the club as caddies have dug out a patch of public land as a rough course for them to practice their game themselves—and as JB witnesses when one of them hits a ball through his car window, they’re pretty darn good. JB gets an idea, and instead of punishing the boys, ends up convincing them that they should start a golf team at their high school—known as the Mustangs—and set out to take on the area’s country club elites.

The Mustangs of “The Long Game”

With its pristine period sets, props, and costumes, as well as its contemporary pop soundtrack, much of The Long Game looks and feels a little too neat, safe, and predictable. At the same time, behind that neat surface lies something ugly; even when, after a tournament, the team enters a clean-looking diner for some food, the waitress barks nasty insults at them and refuses to serve them. At almost every turn, the film’s Latino characters are forced to navigate hurdles thrown up by the community’s privileged white citizens, both on and off the golf course. And it’s most interesting to see how the assimilation narrative comes into play here. The boys don’t fit it at home because they’re seen as too Mexican and, in a scene later in the film where they venture off on a celebratory jaunt over the border to Mexico, the locals at a bar shun them for being too obviously American. JB encourages the members of the San Felipe High School Golf Team—particularly their headstrong and reluctant leader Joe Treviño (Julian Works)—not to meet the other teams’ threats and cheating with violence and anger, and as they head off to their first competition, he instructs them on how to dress and tells them not to speak Spanish on the course, only English. Even when JB and Lucy meet with some of the club’s most prestigious members, like Judge Milton Cox (Brett Cullen) with the hope of impressing them, they are forced to make a sacrifice to prevent the encounter from going south. The name of the game isn’t showing them who you are, but fitting in until you make it. That’s the real long game of the film’s title.

The Long Game’s primary focus character-wise is JB and Joe. The other members of Joe’s team are just kind of there, but Joe is given a fuller arc, from contending with his father who disapproves of his golfing and getting involved with what he sees as a white sport to his romance with classmate Daniela (Paulina Chávez), an aspiring writer who dreams of moving to the city and going to college. JB, meanwhile, is still wracked with nightmares from his time serving in World War II, never granted the honors or respect due to him because of the color of his skin, and is preoccupied with ensuring that his students have the opportunity to be whatever they want to be in life. The Long Game sometimes struggles to balance all of these elements and reconcile the desire to criticize the irony of the American dream while telling a story that practically fulfills it, and the script, by Quintana, Jennifer C. Stetson, and Paco Farias opts for a narrative that’s more straightforward than nuanced. But it’s so competently crafted (Quintana’s tutelage under director Terence Malik on the set of the latter’s 2011 drama The Tree of Life is evident here in the way he balances the existence of good and evil in rural America) that the overall production value overwhelms most of its flaws.

Jay Hernandez as JB Peña in “The Long Game”

The cast is solid too, the boys on the team all possessing stirring chemistry with each other, and Works in particular neatly balancing Joe’s bad boy persona and outrage toward the jerks who treat him like dirt with the tenderness he feels toward Daniela and the uncertainty he feels in the face of his father. Hernandez is a sturdy presence to bring them all together, and this is also one of Quaid’s better roles in years, even if his part occasionally veers into token heroic white guy present to make the white viewers feel less guilty territory. Cheech Marin is also a fun addition as Pollo, the Del Rio Country Club’s groundskeeper who is perpetually walking around in a protective cage suit and spouting words of wisdom.

The Long Game likely won’t cement itself in the annals of great sports movies, but it’s rousing fare that the whole family can enjoy, all while bringing to light a story and a struggle that history has otherwise passed over.

The Long Game had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 12. Runtime: 112 minutes.

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