“23 Blast” is the latest entry in an increasingly popular genre: the faith-based “lite” drama. This directorial debut by veteran actor Dylan Baker is less preachy than movies made primarily for evangelical audiences (“Fireproof,” “Courageous” or the original “Left Behind: The Movie”), but it’s still a firm testament to the transformational power of faith.
And since football and faith tend to go together — the pre-kickoff bended knee is by now a cinematic cliche — films blending the two themes are becoming as common as football movies about overcoming adversity. This story, based on real events, focuses on the locker room prayers of Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka), high school junior, gifted wide receiver and Friday-night star of the Corbin, Ky., Redhounds.
Travis’s life is pretty sweet: He catches passes thrown by his best friend since youth football, quarterback Jerry Baker (Bram Hoover), to the adulation of his requisite blond cheerleader girlfriend. But when an aggressive eye infection leaves him blind, Travis grows understandably despondent. He withdraws to the privacy of his bedroom, where he listens to radio play-by-play of his team’s mounting losses. Just as Travis reaches his nadir of self-pity, his coach (Stephen Lang) devises an outlandish plan for him to rejoin the team.
Hapka, a former “Days of Our Lives” star, does a serviceable job conveying the dejection and anger of a young man suddenly thrust into permanent darkness, and the lantern-jawed Hoover (who was born in Corbin and is the screenwriter’s son) does a serviceable job playing Travis’s wilder and less-focused bro. Two better-known supporting players round out the young cast: Alexa PenaVega (“Spy Kids”) plays Ashley, whose pluck and shy attraction draws Travis out of his funk, and Max Adler (“Glee”) appears as Cam, a teammate whose desperation for a scholarship leads to pitfalls in Travis’s path.
Despite the decent performances, the script by first-time screenwriter Toni Hoover (who reportedly Googled “how to write a screenplay” after deciding to chronicle the story of her blinded football-playing friend) swings from flat to overly sentimental, while Baker’s rookie direction is predictable and occasionally confusing. Even the central emotional dilemma — Travis’s crisis of faith — is distilled into little more than a display of whether or not he’s wearing his leather cross necklace.
Baker, an esteemed character actor known for his haunting breakout role in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” joined the project because his wife, actor Becky Ann Baker (who memorably played the mother on “Freaks and Geeks”), attended high school with Toni Hoover. Both Bakers star in the film — Dylan as Travis’s father and Becky Ann as Travis’s no-nonsense physical therapist. Although the Bakers, and Hoovers’ connection to small-town Kentucky lends the movie a sweet, homegrown touch, it’s hard not to wonder whether it would’ve been more compelling (and less cheesy) in more experienced hands.
“23 Blast” aims to be a combination platter of “Brian’s Song,” “Friday Night Lights” and “The Miracle Worker.” It definitely doesn’t deliver at that level, but it’s fine for youth groups and football- loving tweens looking for a tale of courage and determination.
Chen is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some teen drinking. 98 minutes.