A charming underdog drama starring Robby Benson, the ’70s teen heartthrob with boyish features and impossibly blue eyes, One on One depicts the journey of Henry Steele, a small-town hoops star who discovers the complexities of the wider world when he’s recruited to play ball at a Los Angeles college. The story tracks Henry’s conflict with hard-driving Coach Moreland Smith (G.D. Spradlin), who becomes convinced Henry can’t make it in the big time, and Henry’s romance with sexy graduate student Janet Hayes (Annette O’Toole), who slowly realizes Henry is more than just another dumb jock.
Co-written by Benson and his father, Jerry Segal, One on One is a perfect vehicle for its young leading man, because the story is as unassuming and warm as Benson’s onscreen persona. A brisk prologue establishes that Henry’s been groomed since childhood for basketball greatness, and the minute he pulls into LA, it’s painfully evident that he’s a corn-fed rube because he gets hustled by the first pretty girl he meets, a chipper hitchhiker (Melanie Griffith) who rips off all his cash.
Once Henry arrives at school, he’s overwhelmed by the scale of everything—the size of the sports arena, even the size of the other players—and then, when he becomes infatuated with his tutor, Janet, he’s totally flummoxed. Henry’s resulting shaky performance on the basketball court alienates Coach Smith, who tries to intimidate Henry into quitting. Enter, as the saying goes, the love of a good woman, and soon Henry’s got the motivation to fight.
Although there’s nothing groundbreaking in One on One, it’s a thoroughly watchable movie. The script balances Henry’s journey from wide-eyed innocent to toughened-up competitor with sweet romantic interludes and easygoing comic vignettes, like Henry’s close encounters with Coach Smith’s sex-crazed secretary, B.J. Rudolph (Gail Strickland). As directed by reliable journeyman Lamont Johnson, the movie is paced comfortably, and the sports scenes have effective documentary-style realism.
The cast is filled with several vivid actors who make an impact thanks to well thought-out characterizations; for instance, Hector Morales plays a cranky campus groundskeeper in one amusing scene. The main focus is, of course, the love story, and that works well: O’Toole’s tough-cookie vibe makes a strong counterpoint to Benson’s puppy-dog routine. And while it’s true that Benson’s character makes a couple of abrupt leaps, Henry’s overall arc feels credible, and Benson is, as O’Toole describes him the picture, adorable. Spradlin, probably best known for his small roles in important movies like Apocalypse Now (1979), meshes domineering cruelty and obsessive focus, bringing a militaristic, weakness-will-not-be-tolerated quality to his role.
The fruity songs by soft-rock duo Seals & Crofts that punctuate the soundtrack might be too precious for some viewers (particularly since the lyrics comment on the action a bit too specifically), but the music adds to the picture’s evocative snapshot of a particular moment in time. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
One on One: GROOVY