It’s a fascinating irony that The Sandlot began as an exercise in deep nostalgia. From its twinkly narration to the hoppin’ oldies on the soundtrack, the entire film is meant to evoke what was–for some–a simpler time, along with the guileless joys of being a child. Now, almost three decades after its release, children of the 90s have become nostalgic for what the movie itself represents: I can still remember renting this after school, with its plastic VHS case clenched in my hands. A movie meant to remind us of the past has become an artifact all its own.
The story takes place in the suburbs of Southern California, during the sweltering summer of ’62. Scott Smalls (Tom Guiry) moves into the neighborhood, with his doting mother (Karen Allen) and distracted stepdad (Denis Leary). Smalls is affable and intelligent, but also painfully shy. His mother urges him to make friends and get into mischief. Smalls responds by meekly tiptoeing into the neighborhood baseball game. This glorified scrimmage is manned by clique of eight tween boys. They don’t keep score or anything; the boys simply hit, field, and throw for the joy of doing it. One day, Smalls creeps into the outfield, hoping to get pulled into their orbit.
Things don’t go well at at first. Smalls isn’t much of a fielder, and he doesn’t know the necessary lore of the game. (He’s never even heard of Babe Ruth–geeeeez!) Just when our hero is about to retreat to the safety of his bedroom, he gets a boost from Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar). Benny is the most talented and mature of the group, and he serves as their de facto leader. He flags down Smalls and gives him a few tips on how to play and properly dress. Just like that, Smalls has a foot in the door.
His new gang of rascals hits just about every cinematic trope: Squints (Chauncey Leopardi) is the randy nerd. Ham (Patrick Renna) plays the husky smart aleck. Twins Timmy and Tommy (Victor Di Mattia and Shane Obedzinski) repeat each other like hyperactive parrots. Of course, no squad of sawed-off lost boys could function without a dream girl. For these goobs, that would be Wendy Peffercorn (Marley Shelton). She lifeguards at the local pool, where Squints fogs over his glasses in marathon ogling sessions.
Most of Sandlot is just a bunch of loosely-tethered vignettes, wherein the boys slowly learn a lot about livin’ and a little ’bout love. The neighborhood mythology features a Boo Radley-ish recluse, played by James Earl Jones. He has a monstrous junkyard dog, nicknamed The Beast. (In their retelling, the gang imagines him to be roughly the size of a stegosaurus.) When their baseballs land in The Beast’s backyard, they vanish into the creature’s lair. Whoever can vanquish the monster and retrieve those baseballs will earn a permanent place of honor in neighborhood lore.
As you might guess, The Sandlot is gentle and lightweight. There are brief stabs at some poignant drama between Smalls and his prickly stepdad, but these scenes occupy little of the film’s plot. For the gang, most of the intrigue comes from the molehills that feel like mountains to a twelve-year-old: Smalls and company worry about thumping a rival gang of ballplayers, stealing a dangerous kiss from Wendy, and keeping a safe distance from The Beast. This was a minor success when it came out, but The Sandlot has only grown in stature over time. And that’s not a huge surprise: Back then, people just wanted to travel back to the days of this film’s setting. Now, we all just want to feel like we did the first time watching it.
101 min. PG. Disney+.