It was a story begging for the big screen. Over the years 50 different filmmakers had tried—and failed—to win the rights to re-tell the true account of how a fledgling baseball team of poor kids from Monterrey, Mexico, turned the 1957 Little League World Series upside-down. When the original team members finally agreed to sell the rights to one W. William Winokur—who had no previous film experience, but would ultimately pen the screenplay—The Perfect Game was conceived. There's no reason to doubt Winokur's affection for their story. However, his re-telling of it shows his lack of film pedigree.
At the start of The Perfect Game we're dropped into 1950s Monterrey. Because of the film's limited budget, all the Monterrey scenes were actually shot in the Los Angeles area and then digitally doctored. For someone who's never been to Monterrey, it feels reasonably convincing. In fact, while the film is very flat in the early going, at least the setting is engaging—bustling open-air markets, grimy men in the factories, a quaint little church.
The team first begins to take shape because of a priest (Cheech Marin, in quite the departure from his "Cheech & Chong" days), who decides to bring hope to the local kids by encouraging them in their interest for baseball. When Cesar (Clifton Collins Jr., who earned many accolades playing a convict in Capote) shows up, they've found a potential coach.
Cesar has just come home to Monterrey after being ousted from a position in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization. He's utterly depressed and at first not interested in coaching anybody. But the kids finally convince him when they build a practice field out of an abandoned lot. Soon Cesar is feverishly trying to whip them into game shape in time for the Little League tournament.
The film's director, William Dear, has made two baseball films before: Angels in the Outfield and The Sandlot 3. I never saw its sequel's sequel, but one strength of the original Sandlot was how memorable the kids' characters were—Smalls, Benny "the Jet," "Ham," the Timmons twins.
This is much less true of The Perfect Game. Only a couple of the kids are given distinct personalities, and the conflict that confronts the most developed character of the bunch, Angel, is overwrought. Angel's older brother, who was the favorite son, has just died when the film begins, and Angel's father, Umberto, channels his grief into deepened scorn for Angel, forcing extra chores on him and trying to keep him from playing baseball. We've seen a million jerk fathers in movies before, and this is another one of the one-dimensional variety.
Another underwhelming storyline is the romance between Cesar and a woman named Maria. It's written as a guy-who-can't-do-anything-right-but-still-gets-the-beautiful-girl scenario, but it takes it so far that it's hard to believe that Cesar is even interested.
The priest, Padre Esteban, is the inspirational figure for the kids. Now, it seems as if most inspirational sports films out there celebrate the hokey mantra "I can achieve whatever I put my mind to." It's a self-centered mindset, not to mention unrealistic. Well, for the kids Padre Esteban offers a religious variation: "If I trust God, I can achieve whatever I put my mind to." I don't know whether or not this message matches the piety of the historical Padre Esteban. Either way, The Perfect Game is readily sympathetic to it, probably insofar as it is a heartwarming blend of optimism and cultural flavor. I would have preferred the hokeyness without the piety.