Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Touchback (2011)

Director: Don Handfield                                    Writer: Don Handfield
Film Score: William Ross                                  Cinematography: David Rush Morrison
Starring: Brian Presley, Kurt Russell, Melanie Lynskey and Christine Lahti

It’s tempting to want to compare Touchback to It’s a Wonderful Life, and there is some crossover, but the underlying premise of each is very different, especially when you consider the motivation of the main characters. Brian Presley plays a high school football star who wins the big game, a state championship against an overwhelming favorite, but is severely injured making the winning touchdown and loses his college scholarship in the process. Flash ahead a decade later and Presley is now a struggling soy farmer, married to Melanie Lynskey and with two little girls. Add to that the fact that his leg is crippled, his land is being foreclosed on and his crops are about to rot on the vine, and his devastation is nearly complete. With no way out, he drives up to the bluff overlooking his high school football stadium, plugs up the tailpipe of his truck and turns over the engine. Like George Bailey from Frank Capra’s iconic film, he feels there’s no other choice than to leave his family with some insurance money and the ability to begin anew, without him.

But the similarity ends there. In the Capra film Jimmy Stewart is given the opportunity to see what life for people around him would have been like in his absence, and so his motivation becomes to get back what he had in his life, mainly his wife and children. What motivates Presley, however, is that he hates his life and wants it to be what it could have been, which is a very big difference. In the later film Presley will have the opportunity to change the direction of his life and create a new future for himself. It’s a tempting opportunity, but the price in this case is leaving behind his wife and children which he seems more than willing to do. After passing out in his truck, Presley eventually wakes up because the truck runs out of gas, yet another cruel irony in his life. When he realizes he isn’t dead, he steps out of his truck and discovers he’s back in high school. It’s still a week away from the big game and he has a decision to make: go for the win and ruin his leg again, or sit out the game and go to Ohio State and possibly the pros. One of the interesting things about the premise is the way that his older and wiser self perceives his high school experience. It quickly becomes clear through the reactions of his other classmates that he was an incredible jerk to kids who were not in his social clique. This point is made all the clearer when he tries to rekindle the relationship with his wife.

While he had married Lynskey after his injury, his attempts to befriend her prior to that meet only with scorn as he is clearly slumming in her eyes, as well as already dating the head cheerleader. But he is also able to spend more time with his hard-working single mother, Christine Lahti, and get a new perspective on the head coach of the football team, Kurt Russell. It turns out that Russell is offered a college job nearly every year and yet he chooses to stay in the small town where he grew up. While Presley believes the choice is clear, he is mystified that he keeps getting resistance from everyone in his life. Presley is fairly unconvincing as a football player because of his small stature, but as a mid-level actor he does an adequate job. Melanie Lynskey is a lot more difficult to believe because of all her years on Two and a Half Men, especially trying to play a high school age girl. Most of the supporting cast is equally underwhelming, but Christine Lahti does well enough in a stereotyped role and Kurt Russell, while not quite phoning it in after perfecting the type in Miracle, is still a welcome presence. Ultimately the ending of the film returns to emulate the Capra classic, but because of the distinct difference in motivation it lacks much of the joy. Touchback is interesting, in a way, but not much of a film, maybe enjoyable for lovers of football film, but don’t go into it for the acting.

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