Evald Johnson hits it out of the park with his second feature film – a sports drama that sees America’s favourite pastime get dark and downright dirty.
When sitting down to watch an American movie about sports, one preternaturally expects a few things – the glorification of athletic pastimes, a lovable underdog protagonist that one is bound to root for, and a triumphantly heartwarming story about success. It’s a saccharine-sweet cliché that’s been around for ages in American cinema, one that everyone except major movie studios seems to have gotten tired of. Well, you can thank your lucky stars, because High & Outside: A Baseball Noir is not that all-American sports movie that you’d expect from the title. While ‘noir’ isn’t quite the word that sums up the film, it certainly is black as pitch at its very heart, and it takes no prisoners in its condemnation of the times when a ‘never-give-up’ attitude crosses the boundary between honour and opprobrium.
Lead actor Phil Donlon gives a furious, barnstorming performance as (the identically-named) Phil Harding, a short-stop in the Sioux City Explorers, an Iowan minor league baseball team. Despite being the son of acclaimed baseball legend Len Harding, Phil himself cannot bat to save his life, and after botching one game too many he is released from the team. But Phil is unable to accept that his days of playing ball may be over, even in spite of advice from everyone around him, and he sets out on a vitriol-fuelled journey through Los Angeles to keep his career alive. What ensues is a long and winding road through the deepest recesses of desperation, ignominy, and hypocrisy, which finally ends in a horrifying act of violence, and an ambiguous resolution that may polarise viewers. High & Outside is hardly the success story one expects from a baseball movie, and it is in this subversion that its major strengths lie. And although it may be named after a leading and highly detailed baseball podcast (High & Outside: A Baseball Pod), the film does not forcibly foist any overly technical knowledge of the game on uninitiated viewers, making it a highly accessible thrill ride for all.
a truly compelling watch – there is absolutely no telling what he will do next; hooking viewers as they begin to realise just how corrupt his character really is
As a relatively enthusiastic baseball fan whose team of choice is the long-suffering Chicago Cubs, I’ve heard one too many baseball tales that try to turn anything at all about the sport into some kind of moral parable about sheer resilience and never giving up. High & Outside sidesteps that trope completely by instead examining the darker side to an athlete’s life; one that was never under the spotlights of a crowded Major League stadium at that. By ensuring that its genuinely despicable protagonist is far removed from the slick sheen of sports stardom, the film refuses to conform to expectations from the get-go, and continues to defy predictability at every turn. For viewers more invested in baseball (or sport in general), this doubles as valuable insight into the personal lives and transgressions of athletes, made all the more plausible by writer-director Evald Johnson’s real-life experiences – his father, Tim Johnson, was a major league player with a notable run for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Perhaps this is why Phil’s character is brilliantly written, and all too raw and real – his fall from grace is initially cause for the audience to brand him as an underdog, but a sudden about-turn sees him cheat on the wife he claims he loves, and attempt to both gaslight and emotionally blackmail his ailing father into giving him several thousand dollars. Phil’s sudden mood swings and self-contradictory behaviour whenever he sees fit to manipulate the people around him are mesmerising in how utterly twisted he is, and the fact that there is no morality behind this ruthless crusade makes High & Outside a truly compelling watch – there is absolutely no telling what he will do next; hooking viewers as they begin to realise just how corrupt his character really is.
As hinted earlier, Phil Donlon does steal the show for the entirety of High & Outside, even though the legendary Geoffrey Lewis acts alongside him as his father. Donlon’s subtle menace is palpable throughout the film, and the languor with which he switches between gratitude and anger is almost hypnotic. The late Lewis is also a brilliant foil to Donlon’s dynamism; exhibiting a mildly confused meekness that is interspersed with bouts of indignation, but later give way to the ultimately all-consuming resignation to his status as an old, ailing man with not enough money and a baseball legacy that has had all its past glory wrung out of it. Lindsey Haun’s performance as Heather, the wife from whom Phil is separated, is also commendable for how earnest and convincing her exasperation with her husband’s ways is.
an outstanding sports movie, and an astute exposition of the grittier, less glamorous side to human ambition
High & Outside is also another example of how indie cinema can produce some real diamonds in the rough, against all odds. For a movie that had a relatively measly budget of US$110,000 and was funded mainly by a Kickstarter campaign, High & Outside is a visual treat, and will definitely fool at least a few viewers into thinking that it is indeed a big-budget Hollywood affair. Cinematographer Gabriel Mann pulls out all the stops with every shot, including a fantastic opening sequence montage of a baseball game’s setup and progression, as well as several enthralling time-lapses and bird’s-eye views of Los Angeles. Contrary to most of its press shots, High & Outside is not actually filmed in black and white – and its visual editing and colour palettes further add to the film’s effect; allowing the movie to look visually pleasing without being an overly saturated glorification of its chosen sport.
My only grievance with High & Outside is the way it chooses to resolve itself – for a 98-minute affair that runs on pure undistilled intrigue all the way through, one would think that the bottom of the ninth would prove to be more interesting. But regardless of its ending, High & Outside is still, without a doubt, an outstanding sports movie, and an astute exposition of the grittier, less glamorous side to human ambition. If all movies on Kickstarter look and feel like this, cinema would truly be a lot better than this year’s disastrous box office run.
‘High & Outside: A Baseball Noir’ is now playing at the Raindance Film Festival 2017, taking place from 20th September to 1st October. Information and tickets here.
Image: Raindance Film Festival 2017