The proverb “God works in mysterious ways” attributed to English poet William Cowper, holds true for moviegoers willing to take an inspirational journey up “The Hill” based on the life of Fort Worth native Rickey Hill who was born with a degenerative spinal disease. As a child, he wore leg braces, which led to bullying, and he was told by doctors that he would never walk normally. Yet despite all those adversities he never gave up his dream of playing professional baseball and in 1975 he was signed by the Montreal Expos.
Directed by Jeff Celentano with a screenplay by Angelo Pizzo (who wrote “Hoosiers” and “Rudy”) and Scott Marshall Smith (“When the Game Stands Tall”), the film uses melodrama to tell Rickey’s story, but then again, it’s a faith-driven film and the Bible is filled with melodrama.
The events depicted at times seem miraculous, like when little Rickey (a very good Jesse Berry) rips off his leg braces and declares “I ain’t cripple no more.” In several interviews, the real Hill confirmed that the scene is not part of Hollywood sensationalism, it really happened. He swore he would never wear those braces again and he didn’t.
Dennis Quaid plays family patriarch James Hill, a strict but caring pastor whose faith is set in stone. He struggles to put food on the table, as demonstrated in a scene where the evening meal consists of a small piece of cornbread for each member of the family. And his congregation at the small rural Texas church is made up of disrespecting rednecks who either smoke cigarettes during the church service (while flinging ashes on the floor) or, as in the case of one female churchgoer, chew tobacco and use God’s house as a depository for her nasty spittle. When Pastor James attempts to ask them kindly to refrain from such activity during worship, the flock defrocks the minister and runs him and his family out of town.
The importance of a good sense of humor to overcome life’s obstacles is illustrated in a scene where the family vehicle simultaneously runs out of gas and has a flat tire. It also starts pouring down rain. Are we watching “National Lampoon’s Vacation?” Also, they don’t have a spare tire because Pastor James traded it for gas. Once it starts raining the scene feels heavy-handed because of all the obstacles and the drama’s serious overtone, but once the Hill family starts laughing it signals a humorous moment and the audience is given the okay to laugh. Thank goodness a wealthy stranger (who just so happens to know of a preacher job) rescues the Hill family after encountering them on the side of the road.
The first half of the film concentrates on the family dynamic. James, despite being a pastor whose life revolves around faith, continuously tells Rickey that he’ll never be able to play baseball because of his disability but that doesn’t stop the young boy from practicing by hitting rocks with a stick. James is only shielding his son from foreseeable disappointment and he would like to see Rickey follow in his footsteps by becoming a preacher. He makes him choose between God’s will and his will. Rickey is sharp. He knows scripture and his comeback is perfect.
This is Jesse Berry’s first feature film. The 11-year-old actor who appeared in the Freeform series “Good Trouble” and the Fox series “9-1-1: Lone Star” delivers a natural performance, the kind that usually comes from a much more seasoned actor. When you factor in he’s playing a character with a disability who’s from the South and it’s a period piece, it’s an impressive performance. Pay attention to his facial moves and reactions. He’s a natural.
Other young actors in the cast include Mason Gillet (as Rickey’s older brother Robert) and Mila Harris as Gracie, a childhood friend who refers to Rickey as her boyfriend. Siena Bjornerud plays older Gracie.
The second half of “The Hill” takes place during Rickey’s senior year (Colin Ford plays the older Rickey) where he has become the high school’s star athlete, which is a miracle in itself. Now, the 19-year-old who’s hitting four homers in one game is determined more than ever to make it to the Major League. However, another obstacle is placed in Rickey’s path when he trips on a field sprinkler causing him pain when he runs. The doctor informs him “Your bones are rapidly depleting” and that he needs surgery.
Ford whose good looks make him a natural for the lead role started acting at the age of 4. He gained 25lbs for the role and prepared for the film by attending baseball camp.
Once again Pastor James sees this as a sign for Rickey to give up his baseball dreams (despite how much he’s accomplished over the years) but family friend and Rickey supporter Ray Clemons pushes the teenager to keep pursuing his dream and offers to pitch in a hefty amount to pay for his operation. James gets upset and yells “You’re going to paralyze him!” and accuses Ray of filling Rickey with false hope. Ray drops a bombshell about his past connection to the Lord which gets the Hill family’s attention.
Country singer Randy Houser as Ray is one of the film’s highlights. Houser, who can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon,” plays the role with tenderness, like a warm and loving uncle who’s always ready to support you even when your parents don’t. Joelle Carter plays the family matriarch who supports her husband and her son’s dream, but she never speaks out against Pastor James and wonderful actress Bonnie Bedelia plays Gram, the feisty grandma who stands up to her son-in-law Pastor in defense of grandson Rickey.
Toggling back and forth between a sports drama and a faith-based film, “The Hill” aims to please and after reading several of Rickey Hill’s interviews, I feel his story is a lot darker than what’s portrayed on the screen. He told The Athletic that he ate dog food because the family was so poor. That’s not in the film. It reminds me of the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” which offered a sanitized version of the Queen frontman, leaving the dark chapters out to produce a feel-good movie that paid tribute to the singer.
It’s that “feel-good” premise that drives Celentano’s film. By never getting too gritty, “The Hill” leaves you feeling inspired just as the filmmakers intended.
The climatic ending (that you’d expect from the writer of “Hoosiers” and “Rudy”) elevates the story as Rickey gets his shot at the major leagues by attending tryouts overseen by legendary baseball scout Red Murff (played in the film by veteran actor Scott Glenn), a Burlington, Texas native who played in the majors before scouting; He’s attributed with discovering Nolan Ryan. It’s a good cameo by Glenn, whose villainous “Urban Cowboy” roots rise to the surface as the tough-as-nails Murff puts Rickey through the wringer to see if he has “The Right Stuff.” Yeah, I couldn’t resist. The film’s final chapter is beautifully shot with plenty of tension.
While Rickey Hill never achieved the success that he envisioned as a baseball player, he achieved what many people would deem impossible. The film’s greatest asset is the message Mr. Hill’s story delivers, that people with disabilities are not disabled. You can do more than just dream. You can accomplish great things with a great mindset, supporters, and for those who believe, a healthy dose of spirituality.
“The Hill” is a feel-good inspirational story driven by a terrific cast. Rickey Hill, now a golf instructor in Fort Worth, spent several decades trying to get his story told. If you believe in all the miraculous events that transpired in his life (and just as it seemed that all hope was lost), then here’s one more feat of divine inspiration. Director Jeff Celentano’s brother was sitting in a hotel lobby when he overheard Rickey voicing his frustration at not being able to find a director for the film (he had already been through 40). He introduced himself and gave Rickey his brother’s number. Rickey sent Jeff the script and the film finally got made.
Now showing in theaters