Fresh off its world premiere at SXSW, The Long Game is also the world premiere of Dennis Quaid's new production company, Bonniedale, and it continues Quaid's reputation as of late for devoting himself to telling underdog, aspirational stories that truly matter.
Based upon the critically acclaimed, self-published Mustang Miracle by Humberto G. Garcia, The Long Game tells the story of JB Peña, who in 1956 moved with his wife to the small Texas town of Del Rio. Motivated partly by a job as a superintendent, Peña was perhaps just as motivated by the opportunity to fulfill his dream of joining the prestigious, all-white Del Rio Country Club.
Of course, dreams don't always come true. Rejected solely because of his skin color, this is 1950s Texas after all, Peña's encounter with a group of young caddies who work there changes his plans. This is amplified with Peña a golf course these high school students have made by hand to practice their own game. Convincing them to start the high school's first golf team, Peña is joined by his old war buddy, Frank Mitchell (Quaid), in coaching Felipe Romero (Miguel Angel Garcia), Guadalupe Felan (Jose Julian), Joe Treviño (Julian Works), Mario Lomas (Christian Gallegos), and Gene Vasquez (Gregory Diaz IV) - the self-dubbed Del Rio Mustangs.
Inspirational sports stories are a dime a dozen these days. Films like The Long Game are not.
It took over 50 years for the Mustangs to begin to get the recognition they deserved. Inducted into the Latino International Sports Hall of Fame in 2012, attention has soared thanks to Garcia's acclaimed book and now Quaid's devotion to telling a story that inspires without muting the harsher elements of the story including racism, cultural expectations, toxic machismo, and much more. The real-life Mustangs fought brutal poverty and racism, their parents often incredibly poor and illiterate migrants.
While The Long Game threatens to fall into "white savior" mode, it never actually happens. Quaid's Frank Mitchell is a secondary character here and while Quaid's always present charisma could easily dominate the screen it never does. The film, directed by Julio Quintana based off a script by Paco Farias, and Jennifer C. Stetson, is all the better for it. Rather than saving these young men, Mitchell merely works alongside Peña to coach and mentor these men toward where they want to be.
They open the door. The Mustangs walk through it.
The Long Game tackles difficult subjects, though admittedly in a more often than not rather genteel way. There's never any doubt that the reality of racism in 1950s Texas was significantly more brutal than anything portrayed here. Despite this softening of its subject matter, The Long Game goes places these types of films seldom go including the ongoing conflict between Coach Peña's attempts at assimilating into the dominant white culture and Joe's more determined willingness to confront the racism head-on without losing himself. These conflicts are vivid and portrayed realistically, buoyed by Hernandez's top-notch performance and Julian Works's phenomenal turn as Joe.
The entire ensemble is strong here as Quintana immerses us enough in this culture that we begin to understand it and deeply respect it. While some inspirational sports stories end up looking down at their subject matter, The Long Game builds these young men up and aspires to changing our own stereotyped perceptions.
The presence of Cheech Marin could have easily been turned into a caricature here. Instead, Marin serves up one of the film's more poignant performances as Pollo. Jaina Lee Ortiz and Paulina Chavez also excel in underwritten yet nicely performed roles.
Original music by Hanan Townshend works beautifully within the fabric of the film and Alex Quintana's lensing is effective throughout the nearly two-hour feature that will most assuredly find a distribution home in the near future as this is a definite crowd-pleaser with both style and substance.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic