Review of All Square (SXSW 2018)
by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.
Anyone from an older generation may recall a more innocent tone to kid’s sports than is found today. It is quite common, and should I say natural, for a parent to live vicariously through their children. Whether the parent was once good at sports or not, the child’s accomplishments are often taken as a commentary on the quality of all the parental genes that authored them. Secondly, it is an unstated obligation parents have to support their child. In some cases, we parents are not so good at recognizing proper boundaries to that support. Might that support include a public and vicious verbal undressing of “blue” even when the umpire is a kid? Does involvement include a boisterous pushing match with a parent from the other team?
Kids in the present generation are not in Kansas anymore—they seldom have the luxury of playing sandlot just for fun. Baseball has morphed, like many other youth sports, into something beyond just the game. While healthy competition along with self and team improvement are worthy outcomes, the simple fun has been banished from the leagues. In many settings around the U.S., Little League has become a means to some other end.
In All Square, the little league becomes even more competitive when a bachelor bookie named John (Michael Kelly) discovers the economic advantages of adding the local neighborhood’s games in his catalog of action. After all, since his clients already bet on other sports—why not have them bet on games that mean even more to them? John discovers that parents make irrational bets when their kids are involved—and the bookie profits from their passion.
While this is a comedy of sorts, the darker side of community life unfolds in the plot. The film explores a range of ills in the blue-collar, urban neighborhood where it is set. The characters struggle with single parenthood, unfair competition, under-employment, marital fidelity, and not least of all, unwise money management. John a petty criminal—but he has some potential qualities worthy of redemption. He has a soft spot for hard cases, which makes him less successful than his ailing dad, the one who handed down the business when he went to prison. John, we discover, left his major league career as a pitcher to come home to take over the action. As such, there is some residual bitterness in John that further strains their damaged relationship.
There are several father-son relationships in the film. Though not his father, John takes up the case of Brian (Jesse Ray Sheps) who does not have a dad at home. The kid is not a good ball player, but John toughens him up and teaches him to throw junk. This is the curveball, which most parents know is not typically taught to kids at this age. Nevertheless, it gives an advantage to the team and coach that quietly allow it. John also includes Brian in his petty criminal activity—teaching him how to burglarize homes, place bets, and drink beer. Of course, this does not sit well with Debbie, Brian’s mom (Pamela Adion).
Overall, the film is another dark take on kid’s sports. In the end, things do get squared to some degree; the kid seems untainted by curveballs he endures. Meanwhile, John is paid back what he is owed—and he gets what he deserves. Different from Sandlot where adults are not involved in the game, or even much in the kid’s lives, the adults are too involved in All Square. Alternatively, perhaps it is just that, as adults, we sometimes bring the wrong junk.