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Winner of an audience award at the 2023 SXSW film fest, “The Long Game” is an utterly predictable yet thoroughly engaging period drama. Set in 1950s Texas, the film focuses on the true-life story of five Mexican-American youths who triumph against all odds while overcoming adversity, prejudice and periodic self-doubts in their pursuit of a Texas State High School Golf Championship trophy.  

Jay Hernandez stars as JB Peña, a WWII vet who takes a job as superintendent of San Felipe High School in Del Rio, not so much to succeed in academia as to be near the Del Rio Country Club, where he hopes to improve his golf game. Trouble is, despite a strong recommendation from his former commanding officer, Frank Mitchell (Dennis Quaid), the club’s golf pro, JB is rejected for membership because, as the club director bluntly explains, other members “are just not used to seeing a Mexican on the golf course.” If JB plays there, it will have to be as Frank’s guest.

Actually, the only people of color to be seen on the grounds are Pollo (Cheech Marin), a sage groundskeeper who protects himself from stray balls by wearing a cage-like suit, and five Mexican-Americans teens — Joe (Julian Works), Gene (Gregory Diaz IV), Felipe (Miguel Angel Garcia), Mario (Christian Gallegos) and Lupe (José Julián) — who work as caddies. It’s not much better beyond the country club, as most of the white folks in Del Rio come across as condescending at best, racist at worst. The sign in front of a local business pretty much sums up the prevailing attitude of the community: “No Dogs. No Mexicans.”

But when JB notices that the five caddies have developed a talent for the game while competing at a one-hole course they’ve improvised for themselves on an unattended stretch of public land, he figures that, hey, maybe what San Filipe High really needs is a student golf team, the San Felipe Mustangs. And he should be their coach — with a little help from Frank.

Working from a script he adapted with Paco Farias and Jennifer Stetson from the book “Mustang Miracle” by Humberto G. Garcia, director Julio Quintana (“Blue Miracle”) doesn’t shy away from clichés and conventions, especially when it comes to depicting the racism of whites who range from snooty to hillbilly, and peppering the dialogue with sports movie adages. (“Life is a lot like golf. Some days, it’s smooth sailing on the fairway; other days, you’re lost in the woods.”)

But he and his fine cast infuse even the hokiest moments in “The Long Game” with a disarming sincerity, so that, while there’s never any serious doubt about what will happen when the qualifying series of golf tournaments concludes for the Mustangs, the young underdogs — and their grown-up allies — consistently generate rooting interest on and off the fairway.

Quintana, who started his career by working with Terrence Malick on “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder,” gets splendid work from DP Alex Quintana, his brother, and production designer Carlos Osorio, both of whom greatly enhance the film’s period flavor (which is strong enough to withstand a few minor intrusive anachronisms).

Julian Works is the standout among the Mustangs, to a large degree because his character is the only one of the youths who has more than two dimensions. (The other Latino teens are equally well-cast, but they are given much less to do.) To that end, it helps that Works’ Joe has scenes where he interacts with an angrily disapproving father (Jimmy Gonzalez), and romances a lovely classmate (a beguiling Paulina Chávez) with literary ambitions.

Hernandez is low-key and credible as JB develops mentor-pupil relationships with the Mustangs, and maintains a loving and supportive rapport with his wife Lucy (Jaina Lee Ortiz). Quaid strikes the perfect balance of twinkly-eyed mischievousness and grizzled seriousness, with a side order of wartime trauma, while Marin skillfully offsets his welcome comic relief as Pollo notes that, if you’re not white, fighting for your country does not guarantee acceptance in a segregated postwar society. Maybe you’ll have to win a few golf tournaments first.



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