“23 Blast” tells a fact-based story about a star high school football player in Kentucky who gets a killer infection and ends up, in a matter of hours, completely and irreversibly blind. It’s about a kid without a care in the world, whose entire sense of himself is bound up with the idea of playing football, who becomes suddenly helpless – and, for a time, hopeless.
The film marks the directing debut of Dylan Baker, a character actor who has been a familiar face in movies for the last 20 years. Baker takes material that might have made for a sentimental after-school special and invests it with lots of honest observation. Just as important to the film as the characters and their tribulations is Baker’s feeling for small-town life, for the kinds of people who live in towns where the football team is something everybody knows and cares about, and where the play-by-play is actually broadcast on the radio.
There’s the sense here that living in a tiny community can either make you bigger or smaller, and in “23 Blast” we see both types, from the petty to the stoic and self-reliant. From the director to the actors, there’s an ease with the style here, as well as a lack of self-consciousness about the fundamentalist religious culture of the characters. No one is condescended to, and no one is glorified. We just see people, in a particular time and place.
Politician-turned-actor-turned-politician-turned-actor Fred Thompson appears in only one scene, as a football coach, but he has such wit, gravity and authenticity that he makes a strong impression. Fortunately, Stephen Lang is just as good as his successor, bringing with him an aura that suggests that football is more than about football alone.
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The acting in the younger roles is good, too, even if the actors look less like teenagers than Ph.D. candidates who have been taking their time, indulging in a few “gap” years and then procrastinating on their dissertations. Mark Hapka, who plays Travis, the stricken teenager, and Bram Hoover, who plays his rowdy best friend, are both in their 30s, and Alexa PenaVega, who plays the object of their mutual interest, is 26. Good thing she’s 26. Given her co-stars, an actual teenager in that role might have turned this into “The Jerry Lee Lewis Story.”
Baker’s real-life wife, Becky Ann Baker, a native of Kentucky, plays Travis’ teacher, with an appealingly amused, no-nonsense air. Baker himself appears as Travis’ dad and has to utter the line, “You’re blind, son” and give it the fullness of truth. He does.