EXTRA INNINGS— 4 STARS
The expression “heart in the right place” is normally used as a smallish complement to counteract some obvious flaw or as a baseline pleasantry when something does not achieve its goal fully. Albert Dabah’s intensely personal independent film Extra Innings carries that expression with neither of those dismissive caveats. Its heart is indeed in the right place, with that position being right next to its soul. That soul is wearing cleats, a ball cap, a weathered glove, and a stirrup-ed uniform patrolling the grasses of center field on a baseball diamond on a sunny summer day.
The love and draw of baseball creates family complications for preteen David (Aiden Pierce Brennan of Netflix’s The Punisher) in early 1960s Brooklyn. He is a Little League dreamer soaking up the irascible advise of his aging greaser coach Nicky (character actor Ed Bergtold). The dirt and dust of the ballfield are this boy’s place of solace from a strict upbringing at home, and he’s becoming quite good at the game.
David’s home life is a completely different world from the playful sport. He is the youngest of a devout Syrian Jewish household seeped in old traditions. His exasperated parents Ester (Geraldine Singer of Get Out and Mudbound) and Eli (the director himself) stress religion and tradition while most of their children reflect some fractured disappointment. David’s cherished older sister Vivian (Mara Kassin of Rootz) is an uncouth free spirit living whimsical indulgences in California. David’s older brother Morris (newcomer Robby Ramos) is a troubled schizophrenic savant confined to his room and vinyl records of classical music to calm him.
Eli and Ester don’t speak of the hand-washed failures and flaws right in front of them, creating a tense household and their own unrecognized depression. They pin their hopes on their straight-arrow daughter Rita (TV actress Natasha Coppola-Shalom) and young David. However, all that boy wants to do as he approaches his bar mitzvah is play baseball. Extra Innings tragically turns on a dime when Morris commits suicide by means of pill overdose.
LESSON #1: THE EFFECTS OF SUICIDE ON A FAMILY — Morris’s death further hollows out a family that was already stretching its empty limits. This loss only adds more sullenness and blind hope for most of them. For David, as he ages forward into a young man and a high school senior now played by Alex Walton, it only increases his desire for the athletic place he feels most free of that dread. Extra Innings never goes clinical or preachy when observing this lesson through storytelling. Its rawness to portray different aspects of untreated grief and incomplete forgiveness is impressive, especially when this film is based on the life of its writer and director Albert Dabah.
LESSON #2: FAMILY FIRST, DREAMS SECOND — To Eli and Ester, baseball is a frivolous waste of time, even many years later when David is being courted to play at the college level. They’ve never seen David play and repeatedly emphasize that he needs to mature into a contributing adult following his father into business with a proper family of his own. The pressure of that forced-upon rigidity of cultural expectations is a weight throughout the film.
LESSON #3: ASSERT YOURSELF — David refuses to let go of his passion for baseball. He gravitates to the encouragement of his sister Vivian to head west to California and a growing romantic attraction to a non-Jewish Natalie (Simone Policano of Auggie). One could almost add the phrase “even if people are telling you you’re wrong” to the title of this lesson as David bucks and shuns his domestic restrictions to follow where his heart and soul feel best.
For a small film of emerging rookies in lead positions presented with thick drama, Extra Innings features some standout performances. Mara Kassin impresses the loudest with her gypsy frost that breaks the hardened rocks of tension in the movie. She is a welcome energy. Like a page out of Tyler Hoechlin’s playbook, Alex Walton isn’t faking his baseball prowess yet carries a quiet heft as a romantic lead and family rebel. His scenes with the fetching Simone Policano often feel like a miniature Brooklyn all their own. Don’t let the resumes fool you. This is far from amateur hour and the increasing collection of festival awards for its filmmakers and cast prove that.
The narrative threads and patches of Extra Innings may match or borrow from commonalities you have seen before in a few subgenres, but its expression of them is wholly its own. Dabah’s film is completely unshy and that is a soaring strength where most movies soften to melodrama. Honest crudeness from characters destroys any possible sugarcoating. Extra Innings challenge suicide with a very virtuous balance of wrought drama and disarming brevity. This is can be a hard watch, but an overwhelmingly heartwarming one as well.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#804)