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"23 BLAST"
(2014) (Mark Hapka, Bram Hoover) (PG-13)

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Drama: A high school football player tries to return to his team despite suddenly being stricken with irreversible, complete blindness.
Travis Freeman (MARK HAPKA) and Jerry Baker (BRAM HOOVER) have been best friends and teammates since their early days playing pee-wee football back when Ashley (ALEXA VEGA) was even on their squad. They're now the star combo on the Corbin High School football team, much to delight of athletic director Jasper A. Duncan (TIMOTHY BUSFIELD) who's hoping for another championship, something that's been a long time coming. Yet, while Jerry is the quarterback, Travis has always gotten all of the recognition as the receiver, and the attention of Molly (CRYSTAL HUNT), one of the school's cheerleaders.

And then, much to the shock of everyone involved, Travis is stricken with a bacterial infection that renders him permanently blind, much to the concern of his parents, Mary (KIM ZIMMER) and Larry Freeman (DYLAN BAKER). With the help of visual impairment mobility coach Patty Wheatley (BECKY ANN BAKER), Travis learns how to adapt and get on with his life, unlike Jerry who's eventually benched due to poor play on the field and drinking off it.

Hoping to give his suddenly flailing team a boost, Coach Farris (STEPHEN LANG) comes up with the unorthodox idea to bring Travis back onto the team, this time as the center. That doesn't sit well with the current player in that position, Cameron Marshall (MAX ADLER), or his father (SCOTT SOWERS). Jasper is also against the idea, but Patty confronts him with the legal ramifications of banning Travis from the team. From that point on, and with the help of those around him, Travis tries to adapt to his new role on the team as well as his overall condition.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I have horrible eyesight, have worn glasses since second grade (and probably needed them long before that), and come from a long line of similar "four eyed" family members. In fact, the name from one side of my family tree literally translates into English as "weak eyes." Hearing my prescription, some people have stated I'm legally blind. I have no idea if that's true, but without my contact lenses or Coke bottle thick glasses, I'd have a hard time getting by in life, unable to drive, make out the identity of people more than 10 feet away, and so on.

Any kind of sport requiring eye hand coordination would also be out, although I could at least be able to see the shape of my opponent. But figuring out who they were and trying to see any sort of ball in play would be a long shot. Speaking of the latter, if I told you the story of a high school student who lost his vision yet managed to be on his high school football team, you'd likely say I was blindly believing something I read on the Internet.

Despite that all-too-understandable doubt in this day and age, and once again falling into the fact is stranger than fiction category, that did happen with Travis Freeman at his Kentucky high school back in the 1990s. His tale now appears in the feel-good sports drama, "23 Blast." Named after one of the plays on his team, the film -- directed by actor turned first-time filmmaker Dylan Baker from a script by Toni Hoover and her son Bram Hoover (who went to school with the real-life Travis) -- has some issues and is uneven at times.

Yet, I'll be darned if I didn't react quite often to it the way all involved were presumably striving for. And that's namely being an inspirational flick that just so happens to have a strong religious element to it, but thankfully lets that feel organic to the material rather than hammered home or preached to the choir like so many of its cinematic brethren. In fact, it could be seen as a companion piece to "The Blind Side" in that regard (not to mention something of an obvious pick for that already used title). That said, it lacks the polish and star power of that Oscar nominated flick and most likely won't come anywhere close to that 2009 film's winning record on the box office gridiron.

I have no idea how much of the remarkable story has been fictionalized and what parts are true to life. Likewise, I'm similarly not sure how blind people or their families will react to the portrayal of the protagonist and the related material (including some questionable moments of potentially offensive and somewhat unbelievable levity).

There will be little argument that the film trots out some real-life clichés we've seen in countless sports flicks (including a player's hyper-intense parent who wants his kid to play, the town's water cooler talk about the team and its coach, and, natch, plenty of montages). Or that a particularly odd scene set in a church (where everyone but Travis and the preacher suddenly disappear) might have made at least a little more sense had we known the fella playing the man of the cloth was actually Freeman himself. And it takes a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to buy into 32-year-old Mark Hapka playing a high school student.

He's otherwise okay in the role, and the rest of the performances are decent across the board (including Steven Lang as the gruff but wise coach). That is, except for Timothy Busfield who for some reason plays his athletic director character as somewhat akin to a slightly less aggressive cousin to Jeffrey Jones' principal in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (meaning he's a blowhard and buffoon). I'm guessing the goal was for some degree of comic relief in what's otherwise a fairly serious tale (that includes Bram Hoover playing the protagonist's troubled friend and teen alcoholic), but that material and related portrayal simply don't fit in with the rest of the offering.

The football scenes are handled decently, but noticeably lack the sort of oomph to get anyone on the edge of their seat wondering if the blind player is going to help the team win or possibly cause them to lose. Like the rest of the film, all of that's mostly competent and fairly safe, but the never-heavy manipulation of pulling the viewer into the story worked just enough for me to give (the horribly titled) "23 Blast" a 5 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed October 20, 2014 / Posted October 24, 2014

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