The following review was contributed to Looking Closer by guest reviewer Ron Reed, and the Film Forum was published at Christianity Today.

Ron Reed:

Your grandfather once told me it was okay to think about what you want to do until it was time to start doing what you were meant to do. That may not be what you wanted to hear.

When there’s an envelope taped to a birthday present, you pretty much know what’s going to be inside, but that doesn’t mean you don’t open it. This movie’s a lot like that: it’s an inspirational greeting card of a movie – in its look, in the shape and style of its storytelling, and in its “follow your dream” sentiments. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother watching it.

When a film sets out to tell the story of a high school science teacher and baseball coach whose uninspired players make him a promise to try out for The Bigs if (against all odds) they win the championship, chances are this story’s going to run the base paths in pretty familiar fashion. And when Coach is a guy who hangs a medallion of Rita, patron saint of impossible dreams, from the mirror in his pickup truck, it’s pretty much preordained that things are going to work out.

The real surprises come in how this movie gets where it’s inevitably going, in the attention it pays to the difficulties human relationships go through in the pursuit of dreams – whether they also happen to be divine callings or not. One of the people at the centre of Jim Morris’s life is his father, a preoccupied man made over into the image of the military that owns him and directs his steps: the accomplishment of the movie-makers is not to leave Dad and son stuck there, but to track that troubled relationship on into adulthood, without falsifying it. When the elder Morris advises his son to do what he is meant to do, I couldn’t help remembering a similar conversation with my own mother as I faced a decision whether to go into the ministry or to pursue the life of a theatre artist. I wonder if it’s just a personal reading, or whether this father’s advice doesn’t ultimately convey something about the inevitability of living out one’s vocation – particularly one that’s being steered by the unstoppable Saint Rita and the prayers of a pair of Texas nuns. (On her deathbed, Rita was asked by a visitor if she’d like anything brought from her home town. She asked for a rose. The visitor returned to the family estate, frozen in the middle of winter, and found a single blossom on an otherwise bare rose bush.)

The other central character in this man’s life is his wife Lorri, and Rachel Griffiths’ portrayal truly provides the centre of gravity for this film. What an actress! She charges the standard-issue strong-but-supportive wife role with tremendous electricity and presence, and every one of her big scenes is filled with unspoken nuance before or between or after the lines – check out her exit from the porch after the talk about their son, her reaction to the sport coat call, or the scene where she finds her husband in the bullpen. I hear she’s a regular on Six Feet Under. Almost makes me consider watching television.

For all its too-handsome instant-nostalgia look, the film gives us lots of specific detail as well. The family’s arrival in Big Lake, Texas is marked by “Bang the Drum Slowly” on the theatre marquee. Elvis sings the gospel-tinged “Midnight Rider” as Morris throws BP. The high school ball games may be predictable in serving exactly the plot functions we know they’ll have to serve, but they also feel like ball, and not Big League TV ball either. Jim’s son wears his rally cap at a key moment in the game, and we realize that he’s getting the kind of fathering his dad never got. It’s a treat to see this ordinary father arrive at try-outs beleaguered by the minutiae of baby maintenance, and I appreciated the light touch about the “miraculous” increase in this washed-up pitcher’s fastball. I love the concision of that next-to-final shot, summing up this man’s life and calling in the high school trophy cases, and then the final image of nuns scattering flower petals – they’re roses because of Saint Rita, and they’re yellow because, well, this is Texas!

I’d recommend this movie for families to watch together – it’s a well-made, positive story with faith elements that can provide an entertaining evening together or some great conversation about real questions of vocation or the miraculous. Still, I can’t help thinking the writers let us down with this treatment of the true story of Jim Morris’s improbable shot at the major leagues – could it be that shrinking the role of faith to a good luck amulet and one pre-game prayer session denies us any sense that Christianity offers anything more than a mix of destiny-shaping magic and civic religion. Does God serve no more role in this believer’s life than to provide baseball miracles at the request of some long-ago nuns? Is that what authentic personal faith looks like, or is it just a Hollywood kind of shamanistic superstition?

But most of the time I’m just glad that Hollywood can make a baseball movie – and this is very much a Hollywood movie – that’s also about the hard work of marriage and parenting and being parented. More surprisingly, it doesn’t feel obliged to negate the power of God that worked in this man’s life. In The Rookie, God may be on the bench, but at least He’s allowed in the ballpark.

Film Forum on The Rookie

Until now, screenwriter John Lee Hancock was best known for penning A Perfect World, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. But this week Hancock has delivered a rare gift to moviegoers, a G-rated family film that has audiences cheering and critics raving. Many are saying Dennis Quaid gives the best performance of his career in the leading role. In fact, The Rookie is the most acclaimed G-rated film since David Lynch’s The Straight Story.

Sources say very few details in this true story have been altered to please the crowd—there’s noBeautiful Mind revisionism to make a fairy tale out of difficult fact. Hancock and screenwriter Mark Rich found the tale of Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Morris powerful enough to inspire audiences without adding sentimental glop. And what a story: Morris surrendered his baseball career and his dreams when he injured his shoulder and doctors told him he’d never get his impressive abilities back. So he built a new life as a husband and a father, a community baseball coach, and a high school chemistry teacher. That’s remarkable on its own, but when Morris’s students challenged him to chase his dream one last time, he went for it. At 40 years old. And the dream came true.

Sports movies are too often tailored to convince us that all we need is willpower and a dream. The Rookie could easily have become a cliché about the glory of sports. But moviegoers testify that above all this is a story about the power of supportive and encouraging families and communities to make unlikely things possible. While this spoils the myth of the independent, self-sufficient hero, it offers a far healthier example to those chasing dreams of achievement and excellence.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is inspired by the story. He writes that Hancock and Rich “do lay the schmaltz on a bit thickly. But, to their credit, they do replicate the small town flavor of a community bound together by the personal heroics of one of their own. The way the people important to Jimmy rallied around him, encouraging and exhorting him to go forward to achieve his goals … is exactly how members in the body of Christ are to help one another.”

In a review appearing online today, Douglas LeBlanc (Christianity Today) highlights “the film’s prevailing theme of grace coming into the lives of people who pursue their dreams with courage and love.” LeBlanc argues that Morris’s quest for the major leagues is “less interesting … than the back story written by Mike Rich. Morris’s father is so emotionally repressed that he cannot touch his son even in a moment of athletic triumph. Character actor Brian Cox brings subtlety to a role that he could have easily overplayed. The tentative steps toward reconciliation between father and son make the G-rated Rookie a worthwhile outing.”

Jamee Kennedy (The Film Forum) calls it “a triumph of heart and soul and a wonderfully uplifting movie. Although the film’s promos drip testosterone-laden baseball action, this film is really all about second chances and what we do with them.”

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops calls it an “uplifting charmer. In spite of a few sags in momentum … Hancock’s film pulls on the heart strings … while pleasing and inspiring without the slightest suggestion of violence, sex, or even a crude word.”

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says the film “celebrates hard work, community, perseverance and the need for spouses to share a common, unselfish vision for their home. Also, there’s a sharp contrast between healthy and unhealthy approaches to fathering. The Rookie is guileless entertainment with lots of heart and plenty for parents and teens to talk about.”

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it “one of the best baseball movies ever made. Much more than just a story about the sport, it’s a testimony that God can give second chances in life no matter how old a person is. This one will go on my list as one of the top ten movies this year, and I predict it will be a huge hit!”

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) says Dennis Quaid “gives an excellent performance. [The Rookie is] so well made, that it should win many awards. It also serves as a telling example to Hollywood that clean … pro-family movies can be the hottest ticket in town.”

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) responds euphorically: “Christians and people that value high morals need to support this film. Let’s create some positive buzz!”

Some Christian critics prefer to focus on what the movie doesn’t have. Mary Draughon (Preview) writes, “It’s heartwarming to see an entertaining, feature film about a loving family. The Rookie‘s glaring absence of sex, violence and foul language … adds to its charm.”

Even hard-to-please critics in the mainstream press are won over. Stephanie Zacharek writes, “The idea is sentimental, but Quaid dries all the sappiness out of it. There’s something in his face that suggests both contentment and restlessness, but even more important, the sense that it’s perfectly natural (and understandable) for the two to coexist in all of us. That’s what makes his moments of joy—the swollen music on the soundtrack notwithstanding—seem pure and wholly believable.”

Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) says it “derives its power by sticking to the facts.”

Jeffrey Wells ( finds it a rare treasure: “Comparisons have been made to Remember the Titans, but that film was ‘entertainment’ … [it] used every trick and ploy it could think of to stir the emotions. [The Rookie] works its peculiar magic without seeming to milk, shovel, or pull any one’s chain.”

Marc Caro (Chicago Tribune) writes that the film “plays off of the most basic yearnings: What baseball fan hasn’t imagined striding to the mound of a major league stadium and zipping a fastball past a desperately swinging batter? What son hasn’t wanted his dad to be proud of him? What father hasn’t wanted his son to be proud of him? The Rookie may be pushing buttons, but at least they’re the right buttons.”