Lacing up the spikes of sports movies past, Canadian filmmaker Charles-Olivier Michaud’s “4 Minute Mile” is a by-the-numbers tale of inspiration through perspiration. Engaging performances by the principal players, including Richard Jenkins as a legendary coach beset by personal demons, are almost enough to win the day, but in the end, the cliched narrative is too slight to put the picture over the finish line. A brief lap in theaters and dutiful jog through ancillary might include cable, where most of the thesps have run their qualifying heats.
Drew Jacobs (Kelly Blatz, TV’s “Aaron Stone”) is a promising high-school track star with a chip on his shoulder. He’s being raised by a single mother (Kim Basinger) who can’t protect him from the criminal influence of his older brother, Wes (Cam Gigandet, “Twilight”), who uses him as a courier to menacing drug supplier Eli (Rhys Coiro, the mercurial director Billy Walsh in “Entourage”), to help pay the family bills.
Drew loves running, and he’s fast, but he scuffles with his chief rival on the track team and doesn’t get along with coach Rickard (Aaron Washington). The film isn’t five minutes old before he’s ankled the squad, to the chagrin of Lisa (Analeigh Tipton), who’s hot on him, all under the watchful eye of Coleman (Jenkins), who’s been looking for a protege since his son was killed in a car accident, causing the old man to ostensibly quit coaching. Now he lobs derisive zingers, sotto voce, at Rickard, from a spot safely on the sidelines.
It doesn’t take long for Coleman to connect with Drew, who knows that running is his chance at a college scholarship and his way out of a hopeless situation. But to bring out Drew’s best, Coleman must first break his colt, Mr. Miyagi-like, before he can build him back up. That Jenkins manages to utter such Yoda-esque lines as, “If you do face that fear, it’ll change your life,” and make it sound fresh and believable, is an achievement of naturalistic acting.
Much of Drew’s training involves water — running through it, under it with a tire, over it at the docks where the layout, Coleman says, is a measured mile (the film’s original title was “One Square Mile”). The goal is to “bonk”: to run past the point of exhaustion and have nothing left as you finish, covering the distance in four minutes or less. As Coleman prepares Drew to face the best miler in the state, he also prepares him for life, and Drew discovers the race he must run is not just against his rival.
Jenkins plays Coleman for pathos and occasionally comedy, in a wide-ranging, vulnerable turn that makes the obvious, often repetitive plotting more watchable than it has any right to be. Blatz is believable as a runner and a troubled teen, though his scenes with Tipton, whose endearing stop-start cadence makes it seem as if she’s reconsidering her words as she goes, leave her to do the heavy lifting. Gigandet and Coiro — the latter of whom starred in Michaud’s first film, “Snow & Ashes,” in which he played a war correspondent in Eastern Europe — are menacing. Basinger doesn’t really have much to do other than worry about her son.
The lensing of Seattle exteriors by Jean-Francois Lord (also a “Snow & Ashes” alum) is more inviting than the dark interiors of Coleman’s and the Jacobs’ homes. Pacing leans on frequent shots of Drew running, but the many recurring beats — of Wes asking Drew to make a drop at Eli’s, of Eli making threats, of Coleman waking up on the floor of his living room after drinking — slow the picture’s progress. The soundtrack of simple indie tunes is effective, and Tipton gets to strum and sing a sweet song about the angst of growing up that’s reminiscent of an aged-up version of a similar scene in “Moneyball.”
The climax on the docks, while not without its merits, reaches so shamelessly for the heartstrings that it feels like one of the arch movie-within-a-movie endings in “The Player,” moving one to consider the fact that, ultimately, this film bonks.