I'll admit that I was very biased for this film going in, I was rooting for it to be great. They shot the film in my home town of Ashland, Oregon. I know many people that worked on it behind the scenes. The director and I both had films in a block of shorts in the Ashland Independent Film Festival about five years ago. His film, Wow & Flutter was by far the best of the bunch. I could tell that he was on his way on to better things. It wasn't a surprise when he returned with Steve Zahn in tow to make his first feature a few years later. All that said, I am still judging this film on its own. Thankfully, it turned out to be pretty wonderful.
The titular character Calvin Marshall loves baseball more than anything in life. He wakes at the crack of dawn to hit off a tee, to run the bases and take diving slides in an empty ball field. He donates his time to a little league team, teaching the kids proper technique in how to field and throw the ball. He lives and dies for America's game. The only problem is, he really isn't that good.
At least not good enough to make the team for his junior college Bayford Bisons. His coach, Doug Little, played brilliantly by Zahn, really likes Marshall, loves his hustle and determination so much that he can't bring himself to cut the poor kid. Instead telling him he's "injured" and needs to "get better" first. Which leaves poor Calvin even more deluded, thinking that he's made the team. Calvin puts himself on an imaginary DL list, biding his return to the team by broadcasting the Bison sports show and announcing for the girls volleyball team. His world is rocked by the arrival of Tori Jensen, a beautiful volleyball ace with a dark secret. Although Calvin's pursuit of Tori is fun, the film doesn't offer anything new in the romantic-comedy genre. There is one hilarious scene where Coach Little gives Alex love advice completely in baseball analogies.
Where the film does do something new is the sports aspect. Most sports films tell a similar story, they will either follow somebody destined to be great, think The Natural or The Rookie, or they'll follow a cast of misfits who bring it together to win it all, ala The Bad News Bears or Major League. Calvin Marshall tells a new story, something I don't remember seeing in any other sports film. Having a character who is dead set on becoming great, he'd even settle for good, but simply not having the skill set to get it done. It's heartbreaking to let your dreams go, especially when we're told all our lives that if you work hard enough you'll make it in the end. Calvin works and works and works at baseball, but it isn't to be. The film mirrors his story, with that of Coach Little, he's been the great baseball player, the team star, making it as far as the minor leagues, but not quite all the way. Now that he's older, his skills have diminished and he's crushed that his glory days are over.
Steve Zahn is a bit of a revelation here, he usually doesn't get to show this kind of depth. He's in his comfort zone when he's the hilarious, foul-mouthed coach ragging on his players, but it's in the quiet moments, when he's drinking with the local burnouts or trying to pick up sad and lonely girls, that he shows a whole new side. The entire cast is very good. Newcomer Alex Frost is charismatic, holding his own as Calvin among a cast of recognizable faces. Such as Andrew Wilson as Alex's step-uncle and male-role-model, Jane Adams as Alex's aunt, and Diedrich Bader as the coach of a softball team, the only guy who truly appreciates Calvin's baseball skills. Michelle Lombardo, of Californication fame, looks the part and gets to flex a bit of acting muscles as the volleyball goddess Tori Jensen.
But really, the true star of Calvin Marshall is writer/director Gary Lundgren. For a first film and for the budget that the film was made for, it is an amazing feat. There is a definitive "Gary Lundgren style" at work here. He gets good performances out of a range of actors from veterans to rookies. He knows just how to move the camera and the film looks amazing for it. He understands how to set a scene to music and the exact moments in which to use slow-motion. While Calvin Marshall may not make much of a splash in the film world, and I only say that, because it's such a small film, I believe that Lundgren's career will be prosperous. His debut feature most reminds me of Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, only because you can instantly tell that here is a filmmaker that despite the small budget knew exactly what they wanted to do.
Sadly you'll most likely see Calvin Marshall on video shelves, with Steve Zahn's over-sized head staring out at you. When instead it deserves to be the toast of Sundance. I bet that over the years it will gain a cult following, because the story and the filmmaking are undeniably there and eventually that will get noticed. I'm here writing this review in the small hopes that my words will encourage a few more people to see this little gem. Do yourself a favor and seek out this film.
If you want to see it and live in Ashland, Calvin Marshall will be playing at the Varisity, for one week, starting April 30th. On May 1st @ 6pm, there will be special screening featuring the filmmakers.
And for more ways to see the film check out: calvinmarshall.com