The Long Game

A movie about a high school golf team made up of Mexican-American teenagers in the 1950s creates expectations in the viewer. There will be sunlit greens (writer/director Julio Quintana has worked with Terrence Malick), condescension and blatant bigotry, setbacks, supportive wives and girlfriends, comfortably nostalgic ’50s music, doubting family members, inspiring pep talks, and a satisfying victory. “The Long Game” has all of that, appealingly told with sincerity and taste.

The film is based on the true story of the Mustangs, five caddies who built their own golf course to practice on in the middle of South Texas and went on to win the 1957 Texas State High School Golf Championship. The movie gets right to it, with a sign on a Del Rio, Texas store under “I Like Ike” that says “No dogs. No Mexicans.” JB Peña (a warm, likable Jay Hernandez) is the new superintendent of schools, and he hopes to realize his dream of joining the local golf club. He thinks being nominated by his close friend Frank (Dennis Quaid), who fought with him in the Marines, could overcome the club’s history of prohibiting members of color. It is not. One club member tells JB, “I’m afraid there’s just no place for you here.”

JB meets the young caddies when one of them accidentally drives a golf ball at his car and shatters the window. Instead of punishing them, he offers them the chance to help him start a golf team at the school. The standout is Joe (Julian Works), who initially declines but soon joins in. When Frank sees the teenagers are so dedicated they build their own holes to practice on, he agrees to be the assistant coach.

Some of JB’s goals for the team conflict with one another. He wants them to tuck in their shirts, be respectful, and fit in, to look like they belong there. He tells them not to speak Spanish on the golf course. “The most important thing,” he tells them, “Is for people to see Mexicans golfing.” But he also wants them to be proud of who they are, which can mean not fitting in. When Joe says he does not want to “perform in front of rich bastards who don’t respect me,” JB understands that fitting in only takes them so far.

Some of it is overly predictable, even in such a familiar genre: The team is mistaken for caddies; a young club member skims a caddy’s tip. Two different times, a coach tells the team that life is like golf, and he also asks them, “Don’t you want to show them what you’re made of?” But Quintana nimbly sidesteps some cliches. The white assistant coach is not saving (or is saved by) them. The incidents leading up to the state championship are ably edited and well chosen, giving Jaina Lee Ortiz a chance to shine as JB’s sympathetic wife who has her own struggle and her own golf skills. Joe’s father has his own idea of fitting in, telling Joe not to play golf because people will laugh at him. Those words echo later as Joe says them to his girlfriend, who wants to attend a writing program. 

“The Office’s” Oscar Nuñez plays the school principal whose connections come in handy, and Cheech Marin (back on the golf course after “Tin Cup”) is endearing as always as the golf club groundskeeper, who wears a cage-like piece to keep him from being hit by stray balls. The team visits two diners, one where they are refused service and one across the border where they expect to be at home but are jeered at for being American. JB faces his own moral dilemma when he is presented with a bribe and a threat to get him to end the program.

Anyone familiar with the genre knows to expect some golf metaphors about life. Indeed, golf seems to inspire more metaphors than any other sport. Maybe it is because it extends beyond individual eyesight, because it operates on the honor system without referees, because there are no wildly cheering fans in bleachers, because there is meditative walking between holes, because business executives play golf, or because the economics of a golf course have limited the sport to those who can afford to play, making it the province of the wealthy and powerful. 

In golf, the long game is about power, distance, and direction. The short game is when the player approaches the final shot into the hole, which involves control, strategy, and fine-tuning. For this team and their coach, the long game is about whatever it takes to play and get on track to a championship, even if that means smiling at insults and swallowing their pride when the competition cheats. Ultimately, though, it’s not about golf but about dedication, resilience, and the joy of finding you can do better than your dreams.