There are as many coming-of-age films as there are stars in the sky, but there are only a few that truly capture what it feels like to be a kid. To have an entire universe that is somehow composed of just you and your friends, and the limitless promise of summer ahead of you. The Sandlot isn’t just a baseball movie, it’s a bright, uncynical look back at the joys of childhood.
Scotty Smalls is an introverted preteen who has just moved to a new town in 1960s California. He becomes fascinated with a group of local neighborhood boys who spend all their time playing baseball on a nearby abandoned lot. Scotty isn’t what you might call a natural athlete, and when he finally gets up the courage to try and play ball with them, it ends in utter humiliation. But that all changes when the group’s unquestioned leader, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, takes him under his wing.
The Sandlot is the quintessential slice of nostalgia, a pure moment in time when the stars align and you’re with exactly the right people doing exactly the right thing and you can tell even then that you’re having the most fun you’ll ever have in your life. And the fact that it’s narrated by an adult Scotty Smalls lends The Sandlot a bittersweet quality, as he reminisces about that one perfect summer.
Even if you didn’t grow up playing baseball, it’s easy to relate to the kids because their bond stretches far beyond the sandlot itself. Here, again, the film succeeds where many others fail simply in how genuine the friendships feel. Do you realize how rare it is for adult writers to authentically capture the voices of a group of boys, and on top of that, to give them each a unique, clearly defined character that isn’t entirely reliant on stereotypes? The early 1990s are sort of a golden age for the ensemble kids movie (especially when it comes to sports, with this, The Mighty Ducks, The Big Green, and a handful of others) but even so, The Sandlot stands out.
Another thing that’s really refreshing about The Sandlot is that as silly and fun as the friendships between the boys are, it never shies away from developing the relationship between Scotty, his mother (Karen Allen), and his new stepfather (Denis Leary). In a lot of modern kids’ films, there’s a tendency to portray all adults as stupid or clueless. The Sandlot doesn’t fall into this trap.
Scotty takes his relationship with his parents seriously, and values the trust they have in him. (Yes, even when he’s running around, lying to them, and borrowing then immediately losing his stepdad’s prized baseball autographed by Babe Ruth himself.) In this way, it more closely reflects a relatable parent-kid dynamic than a lot of other films. Half the emotional beats in the film come from Scotty’s conversations with his mother, and it’s amazing to watch the awkward, uneasy relationship between Scotty and his stepfather develop into a genuine bond.
Look, The Sandlot has a lot to recommend it. It’s a fun, action-packed adventure as the kids do battle with a legendary monster dog called the Beast who lives at the junkyard next to the sandlot and has taken possession of the afore-mentioned baseball signed by Babe Ruth. But it’s also a coming-of-age story about those incredible friendships you make as a kid, tinged with the sadness of knowing as an adult that they’re so unbelievably fleeting. Kids will watch it and either see their friends in the various members of the sandlot team, or see the friends they wish they had. Adults will watch it and remember what it felt like to be 12 years old in the middle of the summer and having absolutely nothing to worry about. Scotty comments once in the film about how the kids in the sandlot didn’t really play actual games of baseball, they just kept switching positions and keeping it going indefinitely, “like some endless dream game.” Which, not to get philosophical, is a pretty good representation of childhood. It all seems like it’s going to stretch on forever, and while that’s obviously not the case, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Life changes: people move away, go to different schools, and in the case of Bertram, get really into the 60s and are never heard from again. But in that one moment, as we see captured in the photograph of the sandlot gang hanging on adult Scotty’s wall, everything was kind of perfect. And if a movie is going to give us an opportunity to tap into that, well, there are worse ways to spend two hours, right?