Part of the fun of going to any film festival are the surprises. There are the movies you know you want to see because of the filmmakers, as well as the pictures you must see for the hype and the nature of the beast. But then there are the ones that sneak up on you; the ones that may not have been on your radar when you first set foot in Austin for SXSW, but after some persuasive word of mouth you discover are among the highlights of the whole week. Such is the case with All Square, a small indie dramedy with one hell of a hook for a premise: what if a bookie started placing bets on little league baseball games?
In the words of another movie screen swindler, “Bloom, worlds are turned on such thoughts.”
Thus enter All Square’s ostensible hero and perfectly played louse with a heart of gold—or at least shiny, gold-colored brass—John (Michael Kelly). Portrayed with just the right amount of self-absorbed cockiness that some could mistake for empathy, the role allows Kelly to graduate from playing often supporting schlubs to starring as one with a scheme so demented that the film earns a lot of mileage in its build up toward a bookie who, in his own words, “invented the lightbulb.”
In the film, John is not a terrible guy. Sure, if you walk around town wearing new clothes after failing to pay your debts to him, he might break into your house and steal your television (or dog), but that’s only if you force his hand. More often than not, he is mildly accepting of being the local pariah because everyone owes him money, hence why they cringe when he walks into a bar. Which is a shame, because all of his business is done in bars; they’re also a refuge from home where his father (Harris Yulin) vegetates, reminiscing on when he was running John’s book, and about how John almost went professional in baseball. But that was a lifetime ago.
Also from that other life is Debbie (Pamela Adlon), one of John’s high school exes, who is fine with becoming one of his middle-aged exes too. But it doesn’t quite pan out that way when the next day John runs into Brian (Jesse Ray Sheps), Debbie’s son with no dad, and who is bored during his summer months when he isn’t on the little league field. Whether it is out of kindness or boredom that John agrees to go watch Brian play a ball game is moot, as it is witnessing these fresh-faced kids – and the dads who are far more passionate about their pitching arms – that John comes up with his epiphany: Brian will have a father figure while feeding John intel on the other players and teams, and John can place bets that the parents are sure enough to lose by betting on (and overestimating) their own kids’ prowess.
It’s a pretty brilliant stroke, at least until the local Little League “commissioner” and PTA super-dad played by Josh Lucas catches wind of it.
Director John Hyams is a veteran of television and B-genre fodder. But with All Square, he displays a real knack for capturing the amiable drawl of indie dramedy filmmaking. Working from Timothy Brady’s screenplay, the structure to All Square is very traditional in the field of smaller budgeted and talkie laughers about sad sacks whose days at the bottom are coming to a middle. Yet this one is infused with just the right amount of self-aware humor that makes John feel strangely real, especially as he is in no danger of a redemption arc. He might realize that using Brian is a bad thing to do, but he’ll make it up on his own terms, which decidedly does not include fatherhood.
The film also finds clever humor in this, as everyone around John is second-guessing his motives and undercutting the dude’s own sense of sentimentality. John has no interest in starting a nuclear family with Debbie, and when he tries she, in turn, warns him if he does anything funny with her son, she’ll have bigger guys come after him.
So instead the movie is pleased to just stroll around in the life of Kelly’s anti-hero, which gives the actor the opportunity to pitch a complete shutout in the role. Always good at playing characters with a sea of chaos bubbling under the surface of a cool demeanor, the actor now lets everything be read on John’s easygoing face. He offers a breezy and conversational voiceover that sounds a lot like a guy sitting next to you at a bar who wants you to buy into his ponzi scheme. The more cynical viewer may be wary, yet all still enjoy hearing the prattle.
That affability is also what makes his relationship with young Sheps endearing if not exactly lovable. By design, there is something crass about what he’s doing, but he treats the kid more like a partner than a son, which is somewhat admirable in its dickish honesty. It also allows the humor between the two to blossom into some real crowd-pleasing highs, like when he teaches the boy how to start a fight without getting punished for it.
An even-tempered film, the movie’s later concessions to third act tension can feel a bit tact on, yet even so the movie is thoroughly buoyed by its slightly seedy congeniality, and a bench of male talent doing amusing supporting walk-on work, including Lucas as the type-A all the other parents secretly hate, as well as a few scene-stealing moments by Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Tom Everett Scott.
A genuine audience-grabber, All Square is the type of indie comedy that may not set the world on fire, but for those who have a love of the game, and in this case, that game is an off-color punchline told with a measured knowingness, it is definitely a sure bet.