Faith is literally blind in inspirational sports drama “23 Blast,” the fact-based tale of a high-school football player who suddenly loses his sight, but not his place on the team. Drawn up using equal parts genre playbook and Good Book, actor Dylan Baker, making his directing debut, and thesp Bram Hoover (who co-wrote the script with his mother, Toni) deliver a fairly predictable yarn that’s lighthearted and well-acted, if cast mostly with characters that are little more than tackling dummies. This Heartland Film Festival winner should rack up points with the churchgoing crowd on its Oct. 24 release, but likely won’t cross into a wider field of play.
A preamble introduces running back Travis Freeman and quarterback Jerry Baker as pee-wee players who connect on a long pass play that establishes their athletic promise and the roots of their friendship. Early scenes set a few years later show the pair’s divergent moral paths: Travis (Mark Hapka, “Days of Our Lives”), star player for the Corbin High Redhounds, excels in school and helps his mom, Mary (Kim Zimmer), stock the concession stand before a game. Jerry (Hoover), the quarterback — who somehow gets no accolades, even when he throws TD passes to Travis — can’t remember the plays the coach calls and gets fall-down drunk at the players’ party after the team’s season-opening win.
The night after that first victory, Travis suffers a massive infection that winds up destroying his optic nerve. It’s clear he’s in big trouble when, as he’s being rolled into an operating room, a nurse tells Mary she’ll have to remove the crucifix from around Travis’ neck. Back home, Travis is lost. He listens to loud rock music on his headphones all day and won’t clean his room. But things begin to change when tough-love social worker Patty (Becky Ann Bake) — his “mobility coach” — takes the reins from a doting Mary and challenges him to “get up off his sorry little can and figure out how to whip this.”
Soon enough, Travis is back in school, getting around with Jerry’s help, and having learned how to navigate with a cane. Sitting in the stands at football practice with second BFF Ashley (Alexa Vega), he offers good advice to coach Farris (Stephen Lang, “Avatar”), who’s trying to pick up the pieces of the team without its star. In his office, Farris absent-mindedly turns a light on and off, and realizes the players needs Travis’ inspiration to succeed. Since his former star receiver can no longer see, however, he’ll need a new position — in the middle of the team’s offensive line.
The film tends to split its characters into two camps — those who support Travis’ comeback attempt, and those who don’t, and the line of scrimmage is drawn without much shading (though some, notably, switch sides). Chief antagonist is school athletic director Mr. Duncan (Timothy Busfield), whom Patty disarms easily enough with her knowledge of the state’s laws protecting the handicapped. But Cameron (Max Adler), the team’s center, won’t give up his job without a fight, and there are setbacks to come before the final audible (no extra points for guessing the play) is called.
Some of the film’s best scenes play out between Hapka and Hoover, as Jerry takes a newly sightless Travis on a genuinely funny constitutional around the hospital, and later helps him drive his truck. But a climactic confrontation between the two is overwrought, and the film is more interested in celebrating Travis’ heroic accomplishment than in defining the reasons for Jerry’s failings, which undercuts the central conceit of faith vs. faithlessness for all but true believers.
A dream sequence in church, with a pastor who speaks directly to Travis’ spiritual situation, seems abrupt, but the film’s coda — complete with a homily from 2 Corinthians — shows how truly organic it is to the story.
Director Baker, who also produced (along with Toni Hoover) and plays Travis’ dad, gets fine performances up and down the line, most notably from Hapka, whose initial fear at the moment his character realizes the extent of his condition is utterly believable; Becky Ann Baker (the helmer’s wife), crackerjack as the no-nonsense Patty; and Lang, father-like as the grizzled, problem-solving coach. Vega is plucky as girlfriend-in-waiting Ashley, who gets kissed far less frequently than Travis’ cross.
Tech credits by and large hold up their end of the bargain, with efficient lighting effects showing Travis’ loss of vision, and a soundtrack that features an appropriate mix of contemporary Christian rockers. Less apt is the editing of the football scenes, which, even though clipped, can’t hide the plodding pace of the plays. Though the movie uses some slow-motion intentionally, normal-speed action might have looked less pokey by dropping a few frames. And while individual casting choices are good, members of the Corbin High football team appear to have graduated college some time ago. In a similar disconnect, an early scene in which Corbin’s retiring coach (Fred Thompson) passes the torch to Lang’s Farris is jarring, given the apparent proximity in age between old skipper and new.
For the record, the movie was filmed entirely in Corbin, where Hoover played football and baseball, and was a freshman when Freeman, blind at age 12, was a senior. The coda includes clips of the present-day Freeman, now a minister. The pic is dedicated “in loving memory of Jerry Baker.”