Actor Dylan Baker’s first directorial effort is bound to be termed the real “Blind Side.” Like the feel-good movie that brought Sandra Bullock an Oscar, “23 Blast” is an uplifting, fact-based sports tale about a talented high school football player. In this case, however, the boy’s career on the field—and indeed, his whole life—are abruptly changed when an ocular infection—bacterial meningitis—literally leaves him sightless. But will the condition stop him from playing—or living life to the fullest? What do you think?
“23 Blast” is what’s termed a faith-based movie, one with an inspiring Christian subtext. But despite the fact that the real Travis Freeman, the young man who goes blind, appears briefly as the preacher he always wanted to become, the script doesn’t pound home the religiosity with a sledgehammer. Rather it opts for the earnestness of a Hallmark Hall of Fame-style telefilm, with all the virtues and flaws such a description entails. On the one hand, it’s well-meaning and high-minded; on the other, it’s obvious and predictable.
The focus is on Travis (Mark Hapka) and Jerry (Bram Hoover, who also co-wrote the script with his mother Toni), who meet as kids playing pee-wee football and quickly demonstrate how well they work together as passer and receiver. Fast forward and they’re still an unbeatable pair on their high school team, the Corbin (Kentucky) High Redhounds, where Travis catches quarterback Jerry’s passes and gets the lion’s share of credit for the team’s success. That’s apparently because he’s the straight-shooter of the two, going to class and helping his mom in addition to working hard on the field, while Jerry doesn’t even bother learning the plays, preferring to party hard instead.
When Travis’ malady strikes, despite Jerry’s support it sends him into a funk, and he becomes a virtual recluse, depending on night-and-day care from his doting mother Mary (Kim Zimmer) and, to a lesser extent, his timorous dad Larry (Baker, doing double duty). He even avoids contact with Jerry and his other best bud Ashley (Alexa Vega). Fortunately a hard-driving social worker, Patty (Becky Ann Baker, Dylan’s wife), takes charge, forcing Travis to leave his unkempt room and venture out into public, learning to navigate the hallways of the school so he can return to classes. And Jerry’s always there to help, though the football team, absent Travis’ leadership, isn’t in particularly good shape.
That’s when gruff but supportive Coach Farris (Stephen Lang) has what initially sounds like a crazy idea: Travis should rejoin the squad, not of course as receiver but as center. It’s a decision that riles Cameron (Max Adler), the present center, who resents having to change positions; and it brings complaints from the story’s two chief villains, Cameron’s father (Scott Sowers) and the school’s athletic director, Mr. Duncan, whom Timothy Busfield plays with such over-the-top comic nastiness that his very presence comes to seem a joke. It also causes a temporary rapture of Travis and Jerry’s friendship, though in the end they come through it with their brotherly feelings intact. And you can rest assured that the final game action is calculated to bring a lump to your throat, particularly when the makers take the opportunity to introduce real people from the story cheering in the stands.
There’s no doubt that “23 Blast” is manipulative, and that it deals with the facts of Freeman’s story rather loosely (Travis was actually twelve when he became blind, not eighteen or so). But it’s all in the cause of inspiring viewers to believe that people can overcome even the worst that life might bring, if only they believe they can. And whether or not you’re willing to buy that message, Baker delivers it better than one might expect. He gets a good performance from Hapka, especially considering how difficult it is for a sighted actor to play a blind person; and though Hoover should have been reined in more, his excessive exuberance doesn’t prove fatal, while Vega is nicely natural as Travis’ prospective girlfriend. Lang’s underplaying balances Busfield’s exaggeration somewhat and Baker is attractively understated as Larry (though Zimmer overplays Mary). But the standout among the older actors is certainly Becky Ann Baker, who makes Patty a veritable force of nature.
“23 Blast” was a modest production, and shows it on the technical side, with workmanlike cinematography by Jay Silver and a production design (by Adri Siriwatt) that seems to cut corners whenever possible; the on-field action, in particular, doesn’t really capture the intensity of the real thing. But the fact that it’s modest in most other respects, too, is a plus. Unlike many faith-based movies, it’s fairly restrained in delivering its message, and easier to take than most of them. But by higher standards it’s still just a middling effort.