"The Basket" is the kind of film that shows much better in the playing than in the telling, where it's hard to avoid the almost pejorative term 'family film.' It's set in 1917, in the small wheat-growing town of Waterville, in Washington State, where an insular community now sees one of its sons come quickly home from World War I minus a leg and ill with tuberculosis. At the same time, the town physician/pastor has taken in two German orphan children, 12-year-old Helmut and his 17-year-old sister Brigitta, from a government internment camp. As you would expect, the children bear the burden of local racist hate.
Enter the new teacher for the one-room school, an expatriate from Boston named Martin Conlon (Peter Coyote), a man who brings with him both a basketball and the phonograph records of a German opera called "The Basket." Each day he plays a bit of the opera for his students, catching them up in the story of a stranger who comes to a town that's threatened by barbarians at the gates. The stranger carries a basket with two stones and a sling, and tells the townspeople that this is what will save them. As the opera's story grows and deepens, we begin to see parallels with Waterville and its suspicion of outsiders.
Meanwhile, Conlon has himself been both a player of the new sport of basketball and a coach as well. He begins to teach the schoolboys how to play, and ultimately the team accepts a challenge to play Spokane's big-city team for money -- with which to make a down payment on a new thresher the farmers need.
So in the tradition of what could best be described -- though again, not pejoratively -- as a young-adult novel, all elements: racism, opera and culture, and basketball, come together in a climactic game against Spokane.
First-time director Rich Cowan, a principal in the Spokane production company North by Northwest, has brought a warm, low-key feel to the film, communicating the period and the culture clashes without pretention or self-consciousness. The film moves smoothly and naturally (Cowan edited as well), and the cinematography and art direction are gorgeous. The opera itself was composed for the film by Spokane's Don Caron, and uses local singers recorded with the Hungarian National Orchestra in Budapest. The script is by Cowan, Caron, and two other North by Northwest filmmakers.
As with many other independent 'family' films, one wonders how the acting will be. In this case one needn't wonder. Coyote is excellent in a role that could easily have been overplayed, bringing a charm and sophisticated bite to his Conlon. Karen Allen, as the wife of the local bigot and mother of the dead son, also plays well in a smaller, almost stereotypical role. She has found a way into her character that avoids clichés and remains fresh throughout.
"The Basket" is a small film that isn't likely to get much theatrical play, but remains a thoughtful, provocative experience that works on more than one level.