The Hill doesn’t properly sell the obstacles in Rickey’s way, and its refusal to deepen its central figure makes the whole affair feel hollow.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Prior to watching The Hill, the new inspirational sports biopic from director Jeff Celentano, I didn’t know anything about minor league baseball player Rickey Hill, an athlete whose story is set up to be as soaring and epic as any of the best sports movies. As the tale goes, Rickey overcomes health problems and the disapproval of his father to make it to the world of professional baseball, a pretty straightforward, most likely crowd-pleasing underdog arc. Unfortunately, though, The Hill lacks the depth needed to really sell Rickey’s journey. Heavy-handed religious message aside, the movie doesn’t properly sell the obstacles that lie in his way, and its refusal to deepen its central figure leaves the whole affair feeling hollow.
Young Rickey Hill (Jesse Berry), the son of gruff pastor James (Dennis Quaid), has big dreams of playing professional baseball, and he’s been gifted with incredible talent when it comes to swinging a bat. It seems like his path is clearly marked, but there’s a problem. Diagnosed with a degenerative spinal disease, he wears leg braces that hinder his movement and prevent him from getting that full-body rotation often employed by baseball players. James wants Rickey to abandon his dreams of being an athlete, but Rickey’s faith gives him enough hope to keep pursuing it, especially as he grows up (with actor Colin Ford taking over) and shows signs of healing. However, right when Rickey’s biggest opportunity yet arrives, his health takes a turn for the worse, plunging the aspiring player into his fiercest fight yet.
The effectiveness of The Hill‘s faith-based story will vary for each audience member. For me, I struggled with how it clashed with Rickey’s journey. Outside of his love of baseball and his strong sense of belief, he has no real character to speak of. In the early scenes, James’ struggles as a pastor take up more space than Rickey’s initial development, and even when The Hill finally turns its attention back to its young protagonist and his journey, it settles into a rather repetitive rhythm. Rickey’s strength as a player lies within his impressive ability to hit consistent home-runs, so The Hill only ever shows him batting and being successful at it. Celentano stages each moment Rickey steps up to bat in the same exact way, taking the intrigue and tension out of the moment.
It’s clear the movie, written by Angelo Pizzo and Scott Marshall Smith (and based on a screenplay by Aric Hornig and Stephen Hintz), has no interest in genuinely exploring Rickey’s skills and growth as a player. He’s brilliant from the start, as an apparent stranger tells him early on, and he stays brilliant. It’s very one-note. The Hill‘s conflict comes from James’ objections and Rickey’s health problems, but even then, those issues are not sold as being particularly devastating. James capitulates to Rickey’s repeated insistence that it was his God-given destiny to play baseball multiple times, and even the detail that James has never attended one of his son’s games lacks emotional weight because, outside of that, he seems decently supportive. Meanwhile, Rickey’s degenerative spinal disease resurfaces when he’s a young adult, but outside of people directly saying he can’t play or walk, there’s little indication this is a serious impediment to his abilities since Ford, who does his best to play a character with little depth, can’t properly convey his physical disabilities.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues with The Hill is that it skips events that, one would think, would be the most impactful ones to see. Rickey taking off his braces for the first time isn’t shown, but the audience is treated to the moment James realizes it in an awkwardly staged scene. Rickey’s first baseball tryouts and early practices are ignored in favor of extended moments where he argues with James about God’s will. Faith is important to these characters, and that’s nothing to be scoffed at. However, The Hill‘s interest in being a faith-based movie is at odds with its position as a sports biopic and general character study. By the end of the film, Rickey is still a bit of a mystery, as there’s so much we don’t know about him. Both Ford and Berry play Rickey with a respectable earnestness, but that isn’t enough to make up for the story’s shortcomings. Of the rest of the cast, Quaid makes the strongest impression with a somewhat contradictory character, though Bonnie Bedelia gets the next showiest role as Rickey’s opinionated grandmother.
Overall, The Hill is lacking many of the hallmarks one would expect from a sports movie, pushing aside major events in favor of returning to its religious messaging. This leads to some baffling choices in its character development and storytelling, and those in turn erase much of the tension and emotion from the movie. Rickey certainly has an interesting journey, and there are moments when its power can be felt. Unfortunately, they don’t make up the majority of The Hill‘s runtime.
The Hill releases in theaters Friday, August 25. It is 126 minutes long and rated PG for thematic content, language, and smoking throughout.