Crossover sports and teen heartthrob appeal plus savvy casting should reward “Going to the Mat” with considerable ratings numbers. Chris and Laurie Nolan, Steve Bloom and Stu Krieger pepper the script with enough pop culture relevance to keep it fresh for teenagers, and cull a talented cast for a surprisingly entertaining if fairly predictable story.
Disney Channel, not usually known for its understated handling of tricky subjects, deftly tackles this story — of a teen with disabilities — with more edge than usually afforded in its overly sunny movie franchise.
Transplanted New Yorker Jace Newfield (the startlingly buffed youngest Lawrence brother Andrew) decides his best defense in starting at a new school in Utah is a good offense — literally. He preempts any attempts at help or sympathy based on his blindness by joking about and insulting his new schoolmates.
Jace makes sure everyone knows he’s blind but self-sufficient, and that every other place on the planet is deficient compared with NYC. And while he may have valid points on both accounts, the good, homespun folks of Utah are about to teach him a lesson.
His first tutorial is on the high school social pecking order of Salt Lake. Jace quickly makes a foe of beefy John Lambrix (Billy Aaron Brown), captain of the football and wrestling teams. Jace’s assigned sight reader, Mary Beth (Alessandra Toreson) doesn’t cut him much slack either, but does take an interest in him.
In New York, Jace distinguished himself by playing drums in the school band, but he soon learns from his new friend and fellow outsider Vince Shu “Fly” (Khleo Thomas) that being in the band in Utah marks you at the low end of the food chain.
Sports is the universal language here, and Jace is determined to find a way to fit in. Mary Beth introduces Jace to wrestling, the one sport where blindness and, in Fly’s case, size isn’t an issue. Despite the initial reluctance of wrestling coach Rice (D.B. Sweeney), Mary Beth’s father, Jace and the diminutive Fly are soon part of the team.
Director Stuart Gillard obviously tapped into the experiences of associate producer Tom Sullivan, a former college wrestler and author of “If You Could See What I Hear” to create a realistic and exciting view of the sport. Although a bit heavy on the slo-mo sports sequence, Gillard otherwise nicely balances action with drama, touching on universal teen themes of alienation and the undo pressures of high school sports.
Lawrence is appealing as Jace, a hormonal blend of all that is a teenage boy and does justice to both the wrestling and music sequences. His musical savvy is matched by Wayne Brady, who as band teacher Mr. Wyatt, provides the movie with some toe-tapping interludes.
Unfortunately, Brady’s is almost a throwaway part, appearing as the quintessential sage to Lawrence’s misguided youth. How convenient for Jace that the seemingly only black adult in Utah is blind as well. It’s an unnecessarily contrived plot point, especially when Sweeney, as coach Rice, covers the inspiring teacher role so well. Other perfs are purely ornamental, especially those of Jace’s parents, played by Brenda Strong and Brian Wimmer. We see them fret over Jace’s safety and wave pompoms from the stands, but in this story, it’s Jace handling the big bad world on his own.