Michael Kelly and Jesse Ray Sheps from All Square
Photo: Corey Nickols (Contour For Pizza Hut via Getty Images)

A low-key indie drama about a down-on-his-luck bookie debuted at SXSW this week, and although it at first looks like it will simply tick off boxes on the “standard indie-drama requirements” form, it’s an unusual production, pedigree-wise. All Square (B) is helmed by John Hyams, the man responsible for writing and directing the Universal Soldier installments Regeneration and Day Of Reckoning, two of the best direct-to-video weirdo action films in recent memory. Since then, he’s largely been working as a journeyman TV director, especially on the Syfy series Z Nation, which he also produces, and which is no one’s idea of a grounded drama. He’s an unexpected choice for someone to turn up at a film festival with a soulful tale of a guy just trying to get by, but I’m pleased to report he’s damn good at it.

It does start off resembling something that would shamble out of the Sundance Labs assembly line: A broken man befriends an awkward young kid and life lessons ensue. Michael Kelly stars as John, a guy who works as the local bookie in his economically struggling neighborhood. John delivers voice-over narration throughout, as he unexpectedly ends up taking care of the baseball-playing child of the woman (Pamela Adlon) with whom he has a one-night stand. It turns out, John was almost a pro ball star and can show the kid a few pointers. But more importantly, he uses his discovery of the town’s passionate little league fandom to start taking bets on the kids’ games.

Hyams and his cast take what could have been deeply banal material and instead make it sing, imbuing an old-fashioned sense of realism to scenes of goofy humor and injecting a subtle pathos into almost every character. Stylistically, the director forgoes his usual bag of provocateur tricks to follow the blueprint of ’70s blue-collar maestros like John Huston, albeit balanced with a much more crowd-pleasing sense of framing and comic timing that evokes old-school comedies like the original Bad News Bears. It’s a good look on Hyams, and with any luck, this will help get him more opportunities to branch out into other genres, as well—he’s now proven he’s more than capable of mixing it up.

But everything relies on the main character selling the humanist heart of the story, and Michael Kelly, a longtime character actor, seizes his opportunity for a star turn at the dramatic plate and knocks it out of the park. Kelly is one of those people who turns up in seemingly everything: Besides his ongoing gig as Dumbarton in House Of Cards, he’s a Missi Pyle type who leaves his mark in any project, no matter how small the part. But in his new film, the talented actor has gotten a leading role worthy of his skills. He turns John from a collection of character traits into a moving and relatable soul, a guy who thinks life just refuses to give him a fair shake. He finds the universal in the particulars, making every moment of his journey lived-in and honest. It’s a master class in acting minimalism—aside from a handful of potent scenes in which he lets his carefully cultivated sense of detachment slip, Kelly keeps everything about John under wraps, letting the weariness of his movement and the crinkles around his eyes do nearly all the work. It’s doubly impressive considering that his voice-over has a tendency to spout clunkers about how life goes great right up until it doesn’t, and other such clichés. But thanks to Hyams and his leading man (along with a fine performance from young actor Jesse Ray Sheps as the kid John takes under his wing), All Square does the difficult job of locating the kernel of truth in each platitude, again proving there’s a reason truisms are truisms, even on film.

The story comes from a very personal place: During the post-screening Q&A, writer Timothy Brady admitted he used to bet on televised little league championship games, and after finding himself swearing at a little kid on TV for blowing a pitch, realized he might have a slight problem. SXSW’s after-film discussions this year remain lively.

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