Distributed by Touchdown Pictures
Opening Theatrical Release Date: October 24th 2014
Reviewed by Joshua Andre
23 Blast– Starring Stephen Lang, Alexa PenaVega, Mark Hapka, Max Adler, Becky Ann Baker, Kimberly Jo Zimmer, Bram Hoover, Timothy Busfield, Fred Dalton Thompson, Dylan Baker
How many times do we take our sight for granted? We read, we watch TV, we see and interact with people around us; how much of effort do we think the eye takes to ensure that we see everything in the best way that we can? Maybe we haven’t thought about it. Ok, next question. What if we were blind, and what if all we can see for the rest of our lives is nothing? Not even any shades of colour or shapes? What would we say about our eyes then?
This week, a new inspirational film releases, called 23 Blast, directed by Dylan Baker and distributed by Touchdown Pictures. The incredible true story about a young man named Travis Freeman, and his journey as a blind footballer during college, with the help of his friends and family adjusting to life with no sight after a unfortunate infection; this film may not win many major awards like Best Actor at the Oscars or something like that; the message still is poignant and heartfelt, as we identify with and empathise with Travis’ plight. The story is all the more interesting when we know where Travis is today- he’s a college professor now, so this movie carries with it truth (to a degree) and weight- all the more reason why everyone should watch the film and be inspired and uplifted!
With the film starring not that many Hollywood A-listers, with the exception of Stephen Lang (Avatar, Terra Nova) and Alexa PenaVega (Spy Kids Trilogy, The Tomorrow People); this will probably work in the film’s favour. Having relative unknowns in the cast in my opinion moves viewers to focus less so on the acting (although we’ll come to that bit later) and more so on the storyline. And with a storyline like what I briefly described; you definitely need 100% attention, given the heartfelt and inspiring messages and themes we can all glean and learn from the film.so let’s dive in deeper into the plot a little bit more.
A very emotional, poignant, honest portrayal of one young man’s journey of overcoming the fear that he has when faced with adversary, in this case blindness; Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka) finds out of his blindness after a concussion one game, and infection for subsequent days afterwards. Prior to blindness, Travis is a successful football player (a line backer), who along with his friend Jerry (Bram Hoover), win games for his school (or is it college?). When Travis discovers that he is blind when he wakes up from days of surgery, the first thing he asks his parents (Dylan Baker and Kimberly Jo Zimmer) is ‘how long?’. It hasn’t fully sunk in, but his parents’ voices and them trying to hold back the tears, and choking up, is confirmation enough that Travis is blind for good. Afterwards, Travis spirals into a depressive state, always wanting to stay in his room, never interacting with anyone, and generally feeling sorry for himself.
The film flashes forward about maybe 3-4 months later, and Travis still is in a depressive state. He listens to the football games on the radio, where his team is failing badly, with Jerry acting up on the field and Coach Farris (Stephen Lang) is running out of ideas and options. One time, Travis hears about his team’s lost in real time, and ‘loses it’ for a bit, falling over his bed in anger, and tripping over the lamp stand. Though you would think that this incident would help him gain resolve to work harder and be the best version of himself he could be, it only reinforces what Travis believed at the time about himself- that he’s not good enough to play football, or do anything meaningful in life. His parents and a few of his closest friends, inclusive of Jerry and Ashley (Alexa PenaVega)- who’s his love interest as well- try to help him out of his funk, but Travis’ saving grace comes in the form of his mobility coach Patty Wheatley (Becky Ann Baker).
Using the tough love method approach, Patty comes to Travis’ room one day and turns his life around, quite literally. She treats Travis like a normal person (not like he’s wrapped up in cling wrap, or made of sugar, like his parents were treating him in my opinion), and she gives him some life lessons, as she helps him adjust to life outside of his home, complete with a stick that blind people use (I’m not that familiar with the name). Eventually, Travis’ confidence is built up to the point where he can attend school with ease, and his coach even offers him a place back on the football field (though it’s in a different position- a forward position instead of a back position). Much to the taunting and happiness of a fellow classmate Cameron (Max Adler), who wanted that position to himself; Travis initially doesn’t excel that greatly at his new position. But after Jerry has a heart to heart Cameron, he, Jerry and Ashley train with Travis every night, to the point when Travis is the best centre on the team.
As the movie progresses, the team keeps winning and winning, and we are shown a story of a young man overcoming adversity and in fact appearing like he is revelling in the challenge of being blind. Soon enough, the team comes to the end of the preliminary round, and it’s the last game before the end of the regular season. The climatic part of the film rests on the result of the final game, of which Travis’ team has to win to progress to the finals. In keeping with the beginning of the film, in which the team ran a special play called ’23 Blast’, to win the game with Travis starting as a running back, and scoring a try; Jerry has an idea (of which Cameron surprisingly disapproves- yep, he and Travis are now friends instead of rivals!) to replicate that play again with 5 or 6 seconds left on the clock.
With the team needing to score a try and a conversion to win the game, Travis has an epiphany, and suddenly remembers words spoken over him when he was younger. Becoming bold, and also actively changes positions, much to the coach’s displeasure and insistence otherwise; the play comes off in the end, and Travis scores a try, which to me is a miracle, and was definitely orchestrated by God. After the win, we are shown Travis’ emotions of relief and extreme happiness, as Jerry, Ashley and Travis’ parents and coach congratulate him as well. While the film ends there, and extra information about the real life characters is shown in the credits, and some people may think that the film may have ended abruptly; I think that ending the film just like that provides us with plenty of questions of what constitutes determination and grit, and what hardships we have faced and overcome. While our problems and struggles may not have been like Travis’s, this film is a great way to end a thought provoking film, sure to create healthy discussion as we share with our friends and family about our adversities, and marvel at the testimony of Travis.
Dylan Baker is a first time director- his forte is generally in terms of acting, as he is a seasoned actor. When keeping that in mind, his first time directing a feature film is pretty good, with the camerawork and shots of the football field, Travis’ room, and the outside shots being quite picturesque. And Travis’ story is mostly kept intact- except for a few elements that were obviously embellished for Hollywood purposes. See, usually if a movie is based on true events, the actors and directors involved may have some artistic licence if they want to dramatise the movie and make it appeal to a wider range of audiences. But this film stays faithful to what really happened to Travis, except for a few elements (such as Travis’ age when he went blind). And because of that authenticity, I can respect 23 Blast in their real portrayal of someone who is blind. I’m not sure how anyone would react if they suddenly lose their eyesight, but what this film has taught me, if anything, is that a deep sense of identity is needed if we are to survive and thrive our deepest darkest secrets and ordeals. As a Christian, Travis obviously has and had that faith when dealing with being blind, and though the actors and the crew of the film, may or may not be Christian, the integration of Christian themes and the mention of God and Jesus in the film is nevertheless organic and is seamless in its introduction, and in no way preachy and intimidating, but spoken in love.
For me this film reminds us that God is in control, and that His plans are higher than our own, and that there is always a silver lining amidst the clouds. Whatever plan we have for our life can easily turn on its head, but God is still the same yesterday, today and forever, and because He is God, His plans are trustworthy. As Travis himself plays a part in the film as a pastor and provides inspiration and reassurance to the character based on him; I am swept away in amazement, and marvel at how a faith based film can be disguised as a sports film so much (which is definitely a good thing!). No doubt many people of all kinds of faiths will watch this film, and hopefully lives can be changed, when they see Travis and his family at church, or they hear Travis’s monologue and recitation of a Bible verse just before the last play and last try at the end of the film.
Though the movie is slightly cliché and cheesy at times, in that Travis overcome his circumstance (though the cheesiness can’t be helped, as Travis’ story is real!), Dylan Baker should be proud of his efforts, as we are given hope that everything will be alright in our lives regardless of how hard our hardships are. No matter whether 23 Blast garners positive reviews or not (which I think it will though!), this is a film that overall has so much heart and inspiration, that I will recommend it to anyone who wants to be built up and uplifted.
As far my opinion on the actors and their portrayals of their characters are concerned, everyone acted superbly. It was great seeing Stephen and Alexa on my screen again- they are both talented actors, and they both made their characters of the coach and Travis’ girlfriend respectively, as alive as I could imagine. Mark Hapka is great too, in his vulnerable portrayal as Travis, showing a scared, confused young man, unsure about where he is headed in life, and unsure about his identity in Christ until the middle of the film. Portraying Travis with assurance, elegance, professionalism, and proficiency, personally there could not be anyone else more suited for the role, as Mark was so immersed in the role that at times it was hard to recognise him, and instead I envisioned that that was how Travis’s life was like (definitely a good thing!). While his parents didn’t have much to do, Dylan’s dependability and reliability in his acting makes him the perfect dad, and Kimberly’s portrayal of an uptight mum is spot on- Travis’ mum undoubtedly must have felt a myriad of emotions while Travis was going through his tough spot. And Travis’ teammates didnn’t do much except play football, however did provide able support and made Mark shine in the spotlight in his career defining role.
When you compare 23 Blast with other films released in 2014, it may not stack up come year’s end, against other faith based films such as Exodus, Left Behind, Mom’s Night Out, The Perfect Wave, Ragamuffin and others. However, the indie film (supported by radio stations K-Love and Air1, and including a hit song by David Crowder in the trailer of the film and in the end credits of the film!) shows enough heart and human interest for us to be interested in Travis’ journey. If someone wasn’t a Christian before, maybe they are now, and that is my hope and prayer that this film accomplishes that. A film where the main and overarching theme and important message is about the immense love of God for his children, and the sense that we can overcome any adversity with Him on our side; I believe that 23 Blast is a must watch in 2014, even though it might not be one of my all-time favourite movies. As a faith based film, everyone involved has created a masterpiece, and if not anything else this film is a fantastic tool to evangelise to your non-Christian friends, as we share in Travis’ testimony. Well done Dylan, Stephen, Mark, Max, Alexa and co, Travis must be proud of his story on the screen!