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‘Hardball’ Reminds Us of Home-Grown Tragedies

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I had to feel sorry for the folks in the row ahead of us. A couple of dads, with almost a dozen kids between them, from a preschooler perched on a booster seat to a bunch of preadolescent boys wearing spiky hair and baseball jerseys. Like us, they’d gotten to the theater early, eager for a temporary escape from the overwhelming sadness of the previous week.

But the movie had scarcely begun before the on-screen assault began

I could see the dads cringing in the darkness, their arms tight across the back of their kids’ seats. One buried his face in his hands. The other peered down at the line of wide-eyed boys, then asked in a whisper loud enough to resonate among rows of perplexed parents like me: “What are we doing at this movie?”

Blame me for not being diligent enough to take seriously the movie’s rating: “PG-13. Parental guidance strongly cautioned ... for Thematic Elements, Language and Some Violence” it says right there, in tiny print, at the bottom of the ad.

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Blame Paramount’s marketing campaign, for pitching “Hardball” in TV commercials as a jaunty, feel-good movie; an urban update of the lovable “Bad News Bears.”

Blame the tragedy of the previous week for sending herds of desperate families off in search of something upbeat, uplifting; something to make our kids forget--for a few hours, at least--all the horror they have seen.

“Hardball” was the country’s highest-grossing film at its opening last weekend. And my family was among those packing movie theaters, hoping that its story of the redemption of a down-and-out coach and his ragtag team of ghetto Little Leaguers would remind us of all that is good in a world rocked by hate and tragedy.

What we got instead was a gritty dose of reality; a hard look at the urban terrors that limit the lives of kids like these, spawning a stream of daily tragedies. Because “Hardball” is what its name implies--a gutsy look at the challenges faced by kids in a Chicago public housing project as they try to grab a little piece of the American Dream. It is entertaining and funny, at times, but unflinchingly brutal at others.

I don’t imagine the parents seated around me knew what was coming any more than I did. The theater was filled with more little kids than I’d seen since “Rugrats in Paris.” They arrived boisterous, bouncing with anticipation. They left ashen-faced, in silence--little boys clinging to their daddies, little girls with tear-stained cheeks.

I had taken all three of my daughters, primed to ignore the PG-13 rating by commercials featuring cute-as-a-button little boys cavorting on the baseball field.

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But what the teasers didn’t convey is that the film was a handful of swear words away from receiving an R rating, which would have served as a warning to all those parents looking for wholesome comedy. One month before the movie’s release, its director was told to cut enough “offensive elements” to bump it down from R to PG-13.

That was easy enough. All it took was the replacement of 20-plus uses of the F-word with other curse words considered less profane. That let Paramount advertise it on children’s television shows and allowed kids to attend the film unaccompanied. (The Motion Picture Assn. of America restricts PG-13 movies to just one use of the F-word but has no apparent limits on a whole host of other words too offensive for this newspaper to print.)

So they toned the language down a tad, hyped its family values with a series of saccharine ads and subjected a nation of traumatized children to another round of heartbreak and pain. That’s a kind of hardball I wasn’t ready for.

In the aftermath of the terrorist bombings, there has been talk among movie execs of a change in the kind of films they will be making. Expect to see less violence and more civility; fewer action flicks and more lighthearted comedies. Viewers, they say, will be more reluctant to enter on-screen worlds where lives are in jeopardy. Chastened by real-life terror, moviegoers want to escape, to laugh, to celebrate the love of friends and family.

I know that’s what I wanted last weekend. And I couldn’t help feeling ambushed and overwhelmed by the pathos and tragedies that unfolded on the movie screen.

Still, I’m not sorry I saw the movie, and I don’t regret sharing it with my kids. The film was moving, inspiring and educational in a way few popular movies are today. We talked about it all the way home, and I realized that it awakened in my daughters a sense of gratitude for simple things they take for granted--safe passage through their neighborhood streets, a clean uniform, an extra slice of pizza, a ride home after every game.

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And it reminded me that the future of our country depends not just on our ability to win the war against foreign terrorists. We have evils of our own--poverty, crime, drug abuse, neglect--and we must vanquish them, as well.

So if it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for, “Hardball” may have been just what we needed. We wanted the simple triumph of good over evil; we realized it is not simple at all.

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Sandy Banks’ column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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