Starring: Mark Hapka, Stephen Lang, Alexa Vega
Directed by: Dylan Baker (debut)
Written by: Bram Hoover (debut) Toni Hoover (debut)

How irritating must it have been for the filmmakers behind “23 Blast”–including character-actor-turned-director Dylan Baker– that they couldn’t call their movie about a literally blind football player “The Blind Side?” Of all the issues facing this low-budget, mildly faith-based project, though, a nonsensical title is pretty low on the list. The challenges for a film like this aren’t really that difficult to overcome, and generally consist solely of “throw a little Christianity in there” and “nakedly appeal to the ‘regular folk’ of America.” But seriously, would the extra step of actually making a competent motion picture really be that much more work for the films in this genre?

The film opens on a football field during pee-wee league practice. The grizzled yet kind coach Farris (Stephen Lang) drills plays into the minds of the boys on the Redhounds squad, including new friends Travis and Jerry. When revered high school football coach Powers (Fred Dalton Thompson, the movie’s walking and talking heartland values seal of approval) shows up at practice, he taps Farris as his replacement. Fast forward 10 years and best friends Travis (Mark Hapka) and Jerry (writer Bram Hoover, clearly in his early 30s) are the leaders of the high school team with Coach Farris at the helm. The morning after a big game, Travis wakes up with swelling in his eyes. After a trip to the hospital and emergency surgery, Travis is given the bad news: the infection was too great and it has cost him his eyesight. As he and his family learn to cope with his blindness, Coach Farris has an idea and Travis is offered an opportunity to return to the football field.

Indifferently lit, shot, written, directed and acted, “23 Blast” looks and feels cheap. At times it seems Baker and his crew could barely muster more than 20 people at a time, making the film feel sparse and underpopulated, most egregiously in a pivotal scene in a church full of empty pews on what should be a busy Sunday morning. The high school football action lacks the crackling nobility present in superior takes on the subject, namely TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” which the film is clearly aping, only with lazy, locked down cameras and the store-brand Explosions in the Sky soundtrack. Twenty-eight-year-old Hapka is decent enough in a performance as a newly-blind teen that only resorts to overacting a handful of times. Less successful is Hoover’s attempt to pass as a mildly wild teen, with his ruddy face and receding hairline making him look every bit his real-life age. Alexa Vega, once again hopscotching from Robert Rodriguez T&A to a low-budget, churchy affair, doesn’t really have much to do as Hapka’s friend turned half-hearted love interest. Any real hormonal moments between the two of them fizzle with a shrug as the movie fails to get excited about, well, anything at all.

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