THE STORY – When JB Peña moves to the small town of Del Rio, TX to take over as the school district’s superintendent, his dreams of joining the prestigious, all-white Del Rio Country Club are immediately squashed. However, soon he meets a group of high schoolers who happen to caddy at the club—they too are prohibited from playing the same course because of the color of their skin. So JB and them band together, at first with the aim of winning tournaments and making it to State, but quickly learn that there’s a lot more to aim for—and a lot more on the line—when a team of Mexican-American teens competes and wins in this exclusive world.
THE CAST – Jay Hernandez, Dennis Quaid, Cheech Marin, Julian Works, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Brett Cullen, Oscar Nuñez, Richard Robichaux, Paulina Chávez
THE TEAM – Julio Quintana (Director/Writer), Jennifer C. Stetson & Paco Farias (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
In 1956, JB Peña (Jay Hernandez) and his wife Lucy (Jaina Lee Ortiz) moved to Del Rio, TX, where JB would be serving as School Superintendent at San Felipe High School. A military veteran who had come to love the game of golf during his service, JB hoped to gain entry to the exclusive Del Rio Country Club with the help of former golf pro-Frank Mitchell (Dennis Quaid), with whom he served, but the all-white club turned him down. Later that school year, JB and Frank coached a group of five Mexican-American high schoolers who worked as caddies at the club to the Texas State High School Golf Championship, where they beat every wealthy white Texan high school at their own game with a score that would remain unbeaten for another 36 years. Julio Quintana’s “The Long Game,” tells the story of how the team overcame all obstacles to achieve the impossible. It’s just as generic as it sounds.
That does not mean the story is without merit or the film isn’t worth watching. For fans of true-life-inspiring sports dramas, “The Long Game” will go down like a comforting bowl of chicken soup – the film is full of warmth, and the charm of the cast goes a long way. But the film lacks a sense of personality, with generic ’50s sets, costumes, and needle drops shot in a flat style that does little to inspire excitement while watching. It’s the definition of a “nice movie,” one that plays equally well to people of all ages and backgrounds without anything to confuse or offend anyone.
But the members of the San Felipe High golf team did offend people by the mere fact of their existence on the golf courts of Texas. The treatment the players receive in the film is terrible, no doubt about it, but golf is supposed to be a gentleman’s sport, and fighting back while on the court is a quick way to get yourself kicked off of it. The boys have to learn how to fight back without the threat of violence. The kind of respectability politics the film preaches can be tough to stomach for modern audiences, even as it makes sense for these people in that time and place. Thankfully for the team, JB is on hand to give them plenty of inspirational speeches about how the game of golf is a perfect metaphor for life, while Frank gives them the gruff, tough love you’d expect from a grizzled sports veteran.
Thankfully for us, the film has Jay Hernandez’s natural charm and Dennis Quaid’s unmistakable movie star charisma to keep us invested even though the script doesn’t reach the heights of other inspirational sports dramas. As generic as the film’s style is, it’s even worse on a script level, relying on the performers to give the dramatic heft and passion necessary for the story to land. Hernandez vibrates with passion throughout, fully inhabiting JB’s skin. He never lets us forget that JB is a veteran who needs golf in order to keep himself afloat, nor that his initial inspiration to start the golf team was to get back at the snobby racists at the country club. Quaid’s megawatt charisma is a potent reminder of how much movie stars can give to a project simply by being cast – he draws your eye every time he’s onscreen and understands exactly how much to push the character without going over the top. As written, Frank is a standard-issue old pro, but he becomes more interesting simply by having Quaid play him. It’s movie magic, something that is sadly in short supply in this film.
And yet, there’s something about “The Long Game.” Even amidst all the clichés and underwritten characters – the golf team members barely have personalities enough to distinguish them from one another, outside of Julian Works’s Joe Trevino being the hotheaded best player – the film has an old-fashioned quality to it that is charming. The cast has a wonderful rapport, creating a familial feeling you want to be a part of. It’s not the most engaging film in the world. Still, it hits the expected beats of the genre with aplomb, and the climactic game contains several fist/pumping moments that are purposefully, painfully deflated as the reality of the time and place sinks in. Even if it doesn’t stand out in the pantheon of sports films, the story it’s telling deserves to be heard. It also deserves a better film.