With ‘The Tribe,’ Joel McHale, ‘Nebraska’ writer to play softball

Joel McHale
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

EXCLUSIVE: Bob Nelson’s script for “Nebraska” is already turning into one of the favorites of awards season, looking at big questions like family and community in ways (dry comedy + pathos) rare in contemporary moviedom.

Now the TV veteran’s first produced film script — directed of course by Alexander Payne and hitting theaters next month — could yield another feature.

Titled “The Tribe,” Nelson’s new script is a story about a Native American high-school girls softball team and the new coach who arrives to helm them. And it will get a boost from a popular actor: Joel McHale, who is attached to star as the coach.  

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The project has been set up with John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd production banner, also behind hit high-school dramedies such as “Juno” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” as well as Jason Reitman’s upcoming “Labor Day.” Nelson would also direct the new film.

(The filmmaker and McHale, incidentally, go back a ways — the “Community” star cut his teeth on the same Seattle-area comedy show, “Almost Live!,” that Nelson long worked at. McHale is known largely for television roles but has been beefing up his film career, with parts in the upcoming cop drama “Beware the Night” and Adam Sandler romcom “The Familymoon.”)

The “Tribe” logline carries a certain timeliness — it’s about a Native American community that is flush with cash from a recently opened casino and can now field its own softball team. And though it comes in an established, Michelle Pfeiffer-ish subgenre — white outsider and minority students — Nelson said he’s taken pains to steer it in a different direction. 

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“I didn’t want to do the easy story: the coach comes in and teaches the kids a thing or two, or they teach him,” Nelson said. Instead, the script offers at least three stories for the softball players and three for the parents that Nelson believes fleshes it out beyond the inspirational obvious.

The writer says that the tone also seeks to find a middle ground. Which means, like “Nebraska,” it’s a dramedy (“I think all my movies can be described that way,” the low-key writer said drolly). It will also explore issues of geography, tradition and modernity that echo some of the the ideas in “Nebraska.”

Nelson waited 10 years to see “Nebraska” get made. He hopes to get this one done a little sooner. Judging by the reaction to his new film, he could well get his shot.


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