Writer/director Albert Dabah's autobiographical Extra Innings is an insightful and poignant film that centers around 12-year-old David Sabah (Aidan Pierce Brennan at age 12; Alex Walton as older David), the youngest of four siblings in a devout Syrian Jewish household whose parents, Eli (Albert Dabah) and Ester (Geraldine Singer, 21 Jump Street, Get Out), hold to the highest of standards hoping that he will become a productive member of the New York Jewish business community.
For Eli and Ester, their options for a successful child are running out. Eldest daughter Vivian (Mara Kassin) has been long estranged after setting aside her family's traditional values and heading out to California, while their eldest son Morris (Robert Ramos) is the secret they keep locked away upstairs due to his taboo diagnosis of what is now recognized as schizophrenia. With David, along with Rita, there's still hope.
David, on the other hand, loves baseball and has an obvious gift for it. Guided by the irascible yet unquestionably nurturing of Coach Giabmi (Ed Bergtold), David blossoms on the ballfield and finds peace where everything else in his life is seemingly chaotic. When he's finally offered a college scholarship to play baseball out on the west coast, David's family is furious and he must ultimately decide for himself if carving out his own path is worth cutting ties to everything he's ever known.
In just the couple of weeks since Extra Innings was submitted to The Independent Critic for review, much in America has changed. "Social Distancing" has become a thing and toilet paper has become a scarcity. We're having to learn new ways of connecting as human beings - from elbow bumps to Facetime, web-streamed church services to more time at home and far less time on the road.
It feels like we're living in a different time in just the past two weeks.
The same is true for Extra Innings, a film that takes place in the 1960's and 70's and reminds us that what was in this lifetime for many current older Americans, myself included, feels like a completely different world. Extra Innings touches on themes of Jewish identity, mental health awareness, LGBT+ identity, family, love and, perhaps most of all, hope. It's a film that brings to mind Rob Reiner's underrated gem Flipped, a film that Reiner, in an interview with The Independent Critic, proclaimed as one of his own personal favorites of his films. While the subject matter is different, Dabah, alongside co-director Brian Drillinger, has crafted a similarly stylish and substantial motion picture that understands its times, its characters, and its story and brings it all quite beautifully to life.
While you always get the feeling that David's parents love him, there's life to live and responsibilities to be honored. They seemingly compartmentalize all four of their children and have nary a moment to hear about David's love of "the game." He's got a gift, a tremendous one, but they don't want to hear about it because it doesn't match up with their vision for David's life. As David nears his bar mitzvah, they'd rather his focus be more on his Hebrew than his home runs.
David? David seems to want both.
While there's often an uneasy transition in films such as Extra Innings where two different actors play a character due to age differences, the transition is practically seamless here as both Aidan Pierce Brennan and Alex Walton shine as David. They both beautifully capture David's tightrope walk of an existence as he struggles to discover himself and honor familial and faith responsibilities.
Albert Dabah gives a wonderfully intuitive performance as Eli. It's the kind of performance that feels as if a lifetime has been spent figuring the character out, a sort of introspective spark absolutely making us understand Eli even when we disagree with him. Geraldine Singer is mesmerizing as Ester, who is constantly going but never really getting anywhere with her children and, most painfully, with Morris. It's a terrific performance that feels not far removed from Meryl Streep's almost innate ability to slip on the skin of practically anyone she plays.
While Vivian is a disappointment to her parents, as portrayed so beautifully by Mara Kassin she's the one who's most interested in David's life and who encourages him to keep following his dreams. Kassin is absolutely wonderful here, Vivian's life unfolding like that of someone slowly discovering herself and shining even more brightly as each layer unfolds. Kassin, who co-produced Shawn Christensen's Academy Award-winning live-action short Curfew, may not have a lot of scenes here but she's absolutely essential.
Robert Ramos, as Morris, is the hidden tour-de-force performance inside Extra Innings. Ramos could have so easily gone into the mental illness caricaturees of the 60's and 70's but instead gives the film's most quietly remarkable, emotionally raw performance whether he's acting alongside one of his siblings or Victoria Ric's Maria, whose ability to understand and appreciate Morris gives the film a remarkable gravitas and sets in motion the powerful arc of Morris's story.
In a film such as Extra Innings, the ensemble's the thing and there's no question that's true here. Natasha Coppola-Shalom shines as Rita, who seems to most gravitate to the role both Eli and Ester want for their children. Ed Bergtold, Erika Longo, and Simone Policano also give top notch performances in more limited roles.
D.P. Luigi Benvisto's lensing is warm and natural yet unafraid to envelope in the film's more emotionally intense scenes, while Keti Chichinadze's production design is period appropriate and effective in representing the film's layers of relational complexity. Seville Michelle's costume design and Sasha Prishvin's art direction are similarly impressive.
After a successful festival run that included Best Feature prizes at Manhattan Film Festival and Jersey Shore Film Festival, Extra Innings is headed toward a limited theatrical release. Having established a fiscal partnership with Suicide Awareness Voice of Education (S.A.V.E.), mental health awareness is, indeed, at the heart of Extra Innings and essential to its core.
For more information on Extra Innings, visit the film's official website linked to in its credits.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic