by David Oestreich
The truest moment of human emotion in Milltown Pride comes when Will Wright (Thomas Sneed), a young man from the more genteel side of his North Carolina town, thoughtlessly uses the discriminatory term “lint-head” in a conversation with his friend Chick (Ben Ascher), a denizen of the textile-mill workers’ village. In that moment, the fabric of goodwill woven between them through years of setting aside class differences to share their mutual love of baseball unravels to a very thin and tense thread.
Unfortunately, instead of thoughtfully exploring the potentially rich subject of social tensions between the privileged and the disenfranchised in the 1920s Carolina mill culture (much less demonstrating how the power of the gospel addresses those issues), Bob Jones University’s Unusual Films has, in Milltown Pride, opted to produce a “feel-good summer movie” with a lot of Christian trappings.
The film’s protagonist has just left home and the overbearing authority of his father (played by producer Darren Lawson) to pursue his dream of being a professional baseball player. He hopes to accomplish this by making the local mill team and playing well enough there to catch the eye of a minor league scout. However, in order to play on the mill team, he has to actually work at the mill—something his bigoted, classist father would not tolerate. At the mill, Will meets and pursues the affections of Ginnie Douglas (Becca Kaser), a young lady who works in the office and happens to be the daughter of the man who runs the mill. Her father, in turn, happens to be a guru to would-be baseball sluggers.
But, while seemingly on the fast-track to realizing his dearest hopes, Will does face significant obstacles. One is his teammate Pike (Logan Phillips), a brooding malcontent who has disliked Will from the day they first met as kids in the sandlot. When Will’s baseball prowess earns him the instant admiration of the other players and favorite-son status with the coach, Pike attempts to undermine Will’s popularity and ability in any way he can.
The larger obstacle Will encounters, however, is his own lack of self-control. Not long after he arrives in the mill village, he is sneaking off after practice to the village’s makeshift speakeasy for a sip of moonshine. Out from under the authority of his parents, his ambivalence towards God surfaces, and he quickly loses control of his drinking, his athletic performance and his relationship with Ginnie.
Milltown Pride does do some things right. I should make clear that it would be unfair to expect too much from any studio that has not made a feature length film in more than a decade, much less a studio operated by a fundamentalist Bible college drawing primarily from the talent pool of its faculty and student body. Any review must take these limitations into account.
Accepting these terms, then, the performances by the actors are, for the most part, capable. In fact, the rather antic Billy Sunday—who might easily be overplayed—is given a wisely tempered treatment by David Burke (who also wrote the screenplay). Boyishly rambunctious Ascher is well-cast as Chick, and Logan Phillips’ Pike (probably the script’s most fully realized character) maintains an unreasonable bitterness throughout the film.
I was fairly amazed by the visual world the filmmakers were able to create on what was likely a shoe-string budget compared to that of most big-screen productions. While the cinematography isn’t exceptional, the locations and sets were selected and constructed well enough that I had absolutely no problem believing I was looking back into the prohibition-era South.
Director Tim Rogers also makes some interesting use the film medium’s unique storytelling capabilities. When young Will is punished by being grounded from baseball for a week, he takes to swinging a slat at a knot he has tied in a rope hung from a tree. His patient persistence at this alternate form of practice is revealed when, at the end of the week, his grounding is lifted and he runs off to play. Here the camera’s plane of focus switches from the young boy sprinting away to enjoy his restored freedom to the now terribly frayed knot that has been hanging unrecognizably blurred in the foreground.
Later, when Will leaves home after an argument with his father, he is seen trekking by moonlight across the railroad trestle towards the mill workers’ settlement. This symbolic depiction of abandoning the authority of both God and parent is neatly echoed and repurposed just before the film’s climax when Will, in shining daylight now, again crosses the river desiring to correct at least some of his wrongs.
Finally, the well-scored montage scenes of team training and play are easily the most technically excellent in the film (due perhaps to the fact that most of Unusual Films’ projects are probably short and promotional in nature).
Despite these positives, however, the film cannot overcome its failings, most of which stem from the script.
The director and camera crew present an authentic visual landscape. The script; however, offers precious few real characters to populate it. For instance, we are offered no reason for Will to be drawn to Ginnie other than she’s a girl and she’s there. They go on a series of dates including a band concert and a revival meeting, yet none of the events or dialogue reveals the forging of any true emotional or spiritual bond. The audience is left to write the romance off as merely an expected requirement of a movie story, leaving them with little chance to be truly emotionally invested in the characters.
In fact, most of the characters in Pride—Will’s angry, snobbish father, the team’s volatile yet good-natured coach, Chick’s little brother (who, like Dickens’ Nell, functions as a sympathy prompt)—are no more than cogs in the story’s wheel, conveying the narrative to a predetermined conclusion.
The proof of this assertion is the film’s denouement. In the final five minutes, Will is reconciled to his coach, his teammates and his parents, not because of any genuine growth in those characters themselves, but because (or in order that) Will hits the home run at the crucial moment. Are the filmmakers asking us to believe that Will’s father, upon attending exactly one of his son’s games and seeing him knock it out of the park, is somehow convinced that his lifelong low regard for the lint-head community might be ill-founded?
This lack of character dimension necessarily impacts the film’s emotional landscape—the sum of viewing experience created by joining script, performance, and photography. Put another way, Pride fails to provide an honest portrayal of early 20th century Carolina Mill culture or, ultimately, of humanity. The problem is perhaps best illustrated by the female characters in the film. With the exception of a token mill-town rowdy, every woman in this movie is the stereotypical southern sweetheart. Similarly, the mill workers are generally mild and content. But even a cursory investigation of that culture reveals this portrayal to be false.
Mill workers and their families were frequently desperate and oppressed people who often fit nowhere else in society. Many mill companies took advantage of being “the only game in town,” taking ownership of the boarding houses and general stores so that most, if not all, the money workers earned went directly back to the company, funding next week’s payroll.
In light of this history, Pride’s portrayal of Will’s boardinghouse marm as a rocking-chair-grandmother type, or Chick’s mother as comically generous with what would have been precious nourishment for her family, is inaccurate. More importantly, such a portrayal is a missed opportunity to highlight both the tragic affects of sin on culture, as well as the fact that the way of the transgressor is hard. Unlike the prodigal son, Will moves from one comfortable situation to a different comfortable situation, the latter complete with a cushy job, a girlfriend and the unfettered pursuit of baseball!
Which brings us to Milltown Pride’s worst weakness—an incomplete portrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one thing to use characters as a means to a narrative end. It is quite another to so use the gospel. But when the outcome of Will’s conversion is not only the erasure of nearly all his personal problems but a clear path to realizing his goal of playing professional sports, there is but one thing for a viewer to think: trust Jesus, and all your wildest dreams will come true.
Not only is Pride’s focus on temporal results to conversion misleading, but its path to that conversion is unclear. Billy Sunday’s message seems to present salvation as no more than a better alternative to one’s sinful ways (which the film similarly reduces to mere socially unacceptable behaviors) rather than the only way to be reconciled to a holy and just God, whom to know is life eternal.
Pride’s gospel also seems to border on “easy believism.” Witness the following (paraphrased and condensed) dialogue:
Chick: Let’s pray for my brother to recover from his injury right now.
Will: But if I regard sin in my heart, the Lord won’t hear me. You don’t know your Bible as well as I do.
Chick: Then get rid of the sin! … Ask God to forgive you. That’s all there is to becoming a Christian.
No mention of the deity of Christ. No clear understanding of substitutionary atonement. No mention of the resurrection. Just ask God to forgive you.
I do not demand that any work of Christian art, popular or otherwise, be overtly spiritual, much less that it completely and clearly articulate the gospel. But the makers of Milltown Pride have stated their desire to use movies to “get a [Christian] message out” and “witness to the lost.” Beyond this express concern is the general expectation that the arts should enlarge one’s comprehension of the human condition. This film accomplishes neither.