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“Run the Race” mostly manages to avoid the problems that plague so many faith-based films. It has stronger production values than we ordinarily see, some pleasing, understated performances and—until the end—an unusual lack of melodrama. Veteran actors like Frances Fisher, Mykelti Williamson and Mario Van Peebles provide some gravitas and emotional heft alongside the film’s appealing young stars. And director/co-writer Chris Dowling infuses his sports drama with a grungy sense of place, making “Run the Race” feel a bit like a Christian version of “Friday Night Lights.”
But then everything spirals out of control in the film’s insane third act, which features some truly unfortunate crosscutting at a moment of intense emotional climax. It also takes some turns and ties up some loose ends in a way that’s so head-scratchingly implausible, it’s a distraction.
Until then, though, “Run the Race” is a pleasant surprise. Superstar quarterback Tim Tebow’s first foray into producing is, naturally, a feel-good sports drama with a heavy dose of religious inspiration. Characters tend to spell out everything they’re thinking and feeling as they make their journeys of faith in the screenplay from Dowling, Jake McEntire and Jason Baumgardner. These musing are more likely to validate the faithful rather than convince the skeptical, but the characters’ discussions about their relationships with Jesus may speak to folks who are on the fence.
At the center is Tanner Stine as Zach Truett, who is – you guessed it – a superstar high school football player and the closest thing to a celebrity in the fictional small town of Bessemer, Florida. On the surface, Zach would seem to have it all: good looks, swaggering charisma and natural athletic gifts. But as is so often the case in faith-based films, Zach is questioning God’s plan for him. He and his younger (and more devout) brother, Dave (Evan Hofer), have been living by themselves in their ramshackle home in the poorest section of this crumbling town for the past couple years. Their mom died of cancer and their absent dad (Kristoffer Polaha) has been drinking away the pain ever since. Dowling’s fluid camerawork efficiently depicts the bleakness of Bessemer, with its boarded-up shops and beat-up cars, although he does lay it on a bit thick with the country music.
But Zach, a slick and speedy running back who’s on the verge of taking his team to the state championship, knows football will provide an escape for himself and Dave. (You will be shocked to learn that he has set his sights on the University of Florida, where Tebow was a Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion. Former NFL star Eddie George has a small part as a scout who’s checking him out.) But among the troubles the brothers are facing, Dave is suffering from an illness that threatens to derail their plans.
Without revealing too much plot—because some of the story’s convoluted twists are truly bonkers—suffice it to say that Zach and Dave try to lift each other up and out of their many tribulations through sports and, increasingly, faith. Fisher brings grace and calm to the proceedings as the boys’ godmother, who also owns the grocery store where they work. Williamson is the tough-love football coach (who also coaches the track team, which becomes an oddly crucial plot point) and Van Peebles is the pastor whose Sunday sermons somehow always manage to comment on exactly what’s happening in the characters’ lives.
A lot of it sounds like corny formula, but “Run the Race” has enough of a shaggy, low-key likability that it makes you wish it were better. Stine has a heartthrob screen presence and an easy charm, which is especially true in his flirty exchanges with the pious, young nursing assistant (Kelsey Reinhardt) who cares for him when he suffers an injury. And his anger and questioning make sense; his rebellious streak is understandable. Naturally, the film aims to tame it and make him less complex. Similarly, Hofer is too good to be true as the saintly younger brother.
Whatever goodwill the film engendered gets obliterated during its intensely soapy conclusion, which is more likely to promote unintentional laughter than tears. And the coda is eye-rollingly self-congratulatory. But for a while there, though “Run the Race” might have been a minor miracle.
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