This weekend, the faith film “23 Blast,” based on the true story of a blind, Kentucky high school football player, looked to score a touchdown with Christian audiences in 617 theaters across the country.
I have a feeling the filmmakers will have to settle for a field goal.
On one hand, the movie itself has a lot going for it: some recognizable stars, a few good performances, an inspiring, feel-good story and satisfying entertainment value. The movie is clean enough for most family audiences, and honestly, I’d recommend it, especially for fans (like me) of sports movies, those who appreciated “The Blind Side” and would like to enjoy something similar.
What the movie doesn’t really have going for it is that perfect combination of storytelling and marketing that can bridge the Christian and secular audiences.
Like so many other movies in this, Hollywood’s “Year of the Bible,” “23 Blast” is still searching for that sweet spot that enables a faith film to really soar.
The movie “Noah,” by comparison, used big names and a big budget to market to a wide audience, but then tossed the Bible largely out the window. It consequently couldn’t win the Christian audience and didn’t make back its budget (domestically – the film scored big overseas). Sweet spot missed.
“God’s Not Dead,” as another example, preached directly to the choir, delivered with some quality despite its low budget and made a sizeable profit, even if it wasn’t quite a major box office player. Unfortunately, it was seen for the most part only by Christian audiences. Opportunity missed.
Some of the faith-filled films of 2014 seem to have, even worse, gotten confused and missed everything. “The Identical,” for example, didn’t connect its faith message to faith audiences and whiffed with both Christian and non-Christian ticket buyers. The movie tanked.
And speaking of tanks, the star-studded World War II movie “Fury” presented one of the best made faith films of the year but contained so much obscenity, it drove away the very (lucrative) Christian market that could have made it a blockbuster. Like “Noah,” “Fury” will struggle to make up its own budget in domestic ticket receipts.
“23 Blast,” unfortunately for this decent little movie, seems a bit confused as well.
The story is simple enough: A high-school football star named Travis Freeman is struck blind by sudden illness and must decide whether he is going to wallow in self-pity, or, as he is poignantly challenged, “get up off your sorry little can and figure out how to whip this.”
The tale gets even more intriguing when Freeman’s football coach suggests he put on the pads again and play center for his old team.
“Coach, what if I can’t?” Freeman asks.
“I’ll see you [at practice] Monday,” the coach responds.
The film contains several laugh-out-loud moments, and the story is carried well by earnest, capable and engaging actors. It might be a little predictable (what sports movie isn’t?), but it’s still entertaining and fulfilling.
The movie even strikes a deeper chord when Freeman is challenged to take up his name like a mantel and choose what will define him. It’s an inspiring moment when Freeman is asked, “Who are you?” It’s similar to Jesus calling Simon “Peter” or Monsieur Madeleine in “Les Miserables” declaring, “I’m Jean Valjean!”
What the faith film doesn’t contain, however, is much of a faith element. Yes, there’s a brief sermon scene (which feels a bit odd until you realize the preacher is the real Travis Freeman), and there’s a cross necklace that plays a symbolic role and there’s a Scripture verse or two that inspire Freeman at just the right time – but these are really very minor themes.
The characters barely reference their faith. The plot really doesn’t need it. The film is no more significantly “Christian” than a Hallmark greeting card.
Consequently, I don’t see distinctly Christian audiences raving about it or flocking to it like they did “God’s Not Dead.” Neither do I suspect secular audiences to find it particularly thought-provoking or inspiring. I don’t think it wasn’t really marketed to them, anyway.
“23 Blast” is just kind of lost as a decent, clean, funny movie that probably could have been made for television and will soon be sold inexpensively at your local Walmart. I suspect “23 Blast” will remain, like so many other faith films you’ve probably never heard of, a decent, small movie with a good heart that just couldn’t find a way to reach a wider audience.
- “23 Blast,” rated PG-13, contains roughly 10 very mild obscenities and profanities, along the lines of “crap” and “damn.”
- The film has minor sexuality, consisting of a few kisses, a shirtless guy and a few awkward, teenage moments, such as Freeman’s natural alarm when his girlfriend puts her hands “behind” him to receive a snapped football.
- The film’s violence is confined to the gridiron, where players smash and tackle one another, bully one another and even bloody and injure one another in the course of the game.
- The movie references some Bible passages, contains a Christian hymn and song, a cross necklace that is symbolic of Freeman’s faith and has a scene in church in which Freeman hears the preacher address him directly. Christianity is depicted as positive and strength-giving. There is no overt occult content.