2001’s Hardball starts off with an equally cynical Keanu Reeves, burnt out and caught between multiple bookies and people who will break his legs if he doesn’t pay up soon. Luckily, he’s got a rich friend at a law firm, and they make a deal: while the lawyer’s away on business, Reeves will coach the little league team that the law firm is sponsoring. It’s in a housing project in Chicago, and although Reeves will be paid, it’s still a tough sell. What does a relative degenerate know about little league, let alone coaching kids? Reeves isn’t quite as deranged and desperate as Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, but the same goombahs that shot him in the face are surely after Reeves.
All of the kids on his team happen to be in a class taught by Diane Lane, who Reeves naturally strikes up a friendship and eventually a romance. The kids have janky uniforms at first, and they’re not very good because they’re not very motivated—no one has ever told them they’re worth anything. Almost none of the parents are ever seen, except towards the end, after one of the most shocking and inappropriate tonal shifts I’ve ever seen in a movie. Hardball is similar to 2006’s Half Nelson with Ryan Gosling, but that’s a minor masterpiece; Reeves and Lane are fine, and the kids on the team are great (including a young Michael B. Jordan), but this was a studio programmer made with little thought or care. I’m sure not many people remember it.
Hardball debuted at number one at the American box office, above another new release starring Diane Lane, The Glass House. Both films came out on September 14, 2001. I re-watched Hardball for the first time since its theatrical release last weekend; my brother had no memory of it, but we went with our babysitter Laureen sometime that month, or early-October, to the AMC Kips Bay 15. That wasn’t a normal theater for us—like Zoolander, we saw Hardball before we were allowed to return to our apartment in Tribeca. I remember we went directly after school one day, a rarity, and the vast, lonely auditorium is as clear in my mind as what happened near the end of the movie.
As the team progresses, the games get more serious and the opposing coaches, along with the umpires, start getting technical with Reeves and his team: this uniform isn’t regulation, this player is too young, your roster is too short. No matter: they get better, they win, and they feel really good about themselves.
And then two brothers on the team, one in his early-teens and one just nine, walk home to their apartment. Outside the housing project, a bunch of guys are huddled together, including Michael B. Jordan, who quit the team and joined a gang. He’s still loyal enough to give the boys the signal to leave, now, but suddenly guys come rushing out the building, everyone’s shooting, the boys rush around the corner, and more men come out of the building, jump into a car, and blast their target with a shotgun. We see a few people fall, and it seems like the boys escaped. Cut to a low angle close-up of the older brother looking up to see if they’re safe… things quiet down… he whispers his brother’s name… and then he looks down.
The camera tilts down with him, and we see his nine-year-old brother with a bullet in his heart. He’s already dead. In close-up.
That shot has been burned in my brain ever since that lonely afternoon in Kips Bay in the fall of 2001. Everything about it: composition, camera movement, action. I re-watched Mikey and Nicky recently, a movie I saw for the first time just four years ago, and was stunned by how many shots I mis-remembered or conflated. Going through other movies of my youth, the same thing usually happens: a slight variation on what I remember, or a total reorientation (I thought the “privacy is a thing of the past” plot came at the end of Charlie’s Angels in 2000, not near the beginning). Not much else about Hardball seared itself into me, but that shot did. The only difference was I remembered Reeves holding the boy, but since these kids were the same age as me and my younger brother, it stunned me.
Hardball is the first movie I remember being offended by, how inappropriate and extreme its tonal shift was, and how structurally, there was no way to come down from something that tragic. There’s the pro-forma funeral scene where we see some parents, and then they win a game, but the violent death of a child occurring so suddenly and dramatically in an otherwise amiable baseball movie was insane to me at the time, and unlike the chilling Bicentennial Man, I didn’t come out of Hardball depressed but knowing I’d learn hard truths about life and death. For the first time in my moviegoing life, I knew I’d been manipulated by bad filmmakers with cheap tricks. Zoolander was the ecstatic return to the movies that month, and while I can recall a handful of movies I saw that fall—K-PAX, Bandits, Ocean’s Eleven, Shallow Hal, Max Keeble’s Big Move, the first Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies—none made the impression that Zoolander and Hardball did.
I come back to Zoolander often, because it’s a masterpiece, word-for-word, shot-for-shot. It’s one of the few movies that truly exceeded my expectations, a movie I was dying to see before 9/11, hoped against hope that it would be rated PG-13, and saw as soon as possible. It came out at the end of September, unlike Hardball, and although I’m still not sure which theater we went to, I know my mom, brother, and some friends and I all had an amazing 90 minutes in an otherwise unbearably grim present. But when my brother, Laureen, and I saw Hardball in Kips Bay, there was hardly anyone else there. Right off the FDR, this was an unfamiliar and unappealing theater in an already dislocated time, and to see a little kid with so many similarities to me and my brother get murdered in close-up made a major impression on me, one of the most significant memories I have of sitting in a movie theater.
But I wasn’t “traumatized” by it. I also wasn’t “too young” to see Hardball, or Zoolander. I knew then at eight-years-old that this movie played a dirty trick on me, and I never forgave it. I wasn’t scarred, I was tricked: the inchoate laws that undergirded the movies was familiar to me, and Hardball betrayed something fundamental, in the same way that Bridge to Terabithia would six years later. A Hollywood movie about inner-city black kids playing baseball is, unfortunately, likely to have someone die, and I’d certainly bet on one of the kids. But this was a Bambi-level betrayal, a shot that has stuck with me ever since: for the first time, I knew this was wrong, and I knew it was the movie’s fault, not mine.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith