> Grade: A+
Hardball tells the story of a handful of youngsters, born into a tough neighborhood, who use the sport of baseball as a means to live their childhood in as normal a way as possible -- if only for several innings at a time.
   This is one of the best films of the year -- a very touching story. It succeeds because its characters get obstacles thrown in their paths, forcing them to use the hands they're dealt and the friends they know to try to find a way around them.
   The picture uses baseball as its backdrop, but it isn't as much about baseball as it is about the way these kids feel, the way they live, the music they listen to and what makes them throw their hands in the air once in awhile in triumph.
   Keanu Reeves stars as Conor O'Neill, a character who is forced into coaching a baseball team from one of the toughest parts of Chicago in order to pay off a load of gambling debt.
   We watch as O'Neill goes from being one depressed individual, one who lives an unhappy life, to one whose life is turned around by a bunch of inner-city kids who are not even old enough to drive a car.
   Taking this position isn't an easy task for O'Neill. He knows little about baseball, while the team is filled with foul-mouth players.
   They aren't too fond of him either at first, but O'Neill needs to pay off his debt and these underprivileged kids need a coach. After awhile, the two parties agree to stick it out for the long haul.
   The story centers around O'Neill and the impact he has on these kids. This film reminds us how sometimes there's more to coaching than having the knowledge of the sport.
   It means something when O'Neill drives some of them home because it's too dark to walk in the violent neighborhood, or when he buys them new uniforms because he's proud of who they've become, or when he takes them out to dinner and buys them four pizzas, complete with soft drinks.
   These players have a simple need for someone who will show up for practice, for games, and who will listen to them when they need someone to talk to.
   There's a romantic interest element in the story, but it isn't a major one. There's some chemistry between O'Neill and the players' tough teacher (Diane Lane), but the film is smart enough to stay focused on the players and their new coach.
   Hardball has quite an ending. Come to think of it, it has quite a middle, too.
   Reeves is good and the rest of the cast is filled with some of the best performances from childhood actors I've seen, especially those from the team's pitcher Miles (A. Delon Ellis Jr.) and the team's youngest player G-Baby (DeWayne Warren).
   Hardball is a must-see film and I'm guessing the Daniel Coyle novel the movie was inspired by is just as good. There is a lot of intelligence involved here, the most I've seen in a sports-related film since 1983's All the Right Moves.
**** Hardball is rated Pg-13 for thematic elements, language and some violence
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