Happy Easter, everyone! Christ is risen, which is something I have some thoughts and even grumblings about- yes, you read that correctly- so stay tuned for another post about that. In the meantime, the following review of “Touchback,” opening in theaters this week, is republished with permission of the Episcopal Digital Network’s online publication, “Sermons That Work.” If you haven’t visited, I invite you to check it out: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/ I think you’ll find there a well of helpful resources for folks like you and me asking questions at the intersection between life and God:
Movies about football are usually not my cup of tea. (I might watch the Super Bowl once a year, so long as nachos with all the works and some good company are part of the invitation.) Neither are explicitly “Christian” flicks, which often can seem trite, contrived and a bit schmaltzy.
Touchback, which opens in theaters on April 13 and stars Brian Presley (Home of the Brave) and Melanie Lynskey (Up In the Air, Sweet Home Alabama, and CBS’ “Two and a Half Men”), with Kurt Russell as supporting actor, left me pleasantly surprised on both fronts: you don’t have to know what a “touchback” or “audible” is to find the plot engaging; and you don’t have to be a proselyte for the genre of “Christian movies” to walk away having been touched by the film’s message of redemption and second chances.
Presley plays a washed-up, high school football star, Scott Murphy, who after permanently injuring his leg in a game-winning play during a state championship game, is obliged to trade in a college scholarship at Ohio State and hopes of a future in pro football for a small-town life as a farmer and family man. Murphy, resigned to an unhappy, claustrophobic life in his home town of Coldwater (population: 2,700), and forever haunted by regret and “what-if’s” as a result of that fateful night, becomes depressed and suicidal when bank foreclosure and an unexpected frost threaten to wipe out his livelihood.
Second chances come unexpectedly in the form of a dream that takes Murphy back to the days leading up to that night. The overall effect is that of a serious version of Back to the Future. If there are no cool time machines or mad scientists here, some of the same questions present themselves- about free will, or the lack thereof, about the intersection between human possibility, chaos theory and God’s “providence,” and, about the nature of redemption with respect to our past, present and future.
This theme of redemption is one that Touchback both enriches and problematizes. The possibility for Murphy’s redemption comes when he is able to return to his past and view it through the lens of the present- when he, in essence, is offered through a dream the chance to choose with the gift of hindsight a different fate for himself. The college scholarship, pretty blonde girlfriend, and a ticket out of “Backwater” (the slang he uses to describe his home town), all present themselves once again for the taking- and these, in contrast, to the prospect that he will end up with his future wife (Lynskey), after lying injured in a hospital bed with a shattered knee.
“Redemption” in the end is about staying- “blooming where you’re planted,” so to speak. “Salvation” is learning to find gratitude and community in hard, painful circumstances. And what that looks like at the end of the movie may bring you to tears.
Still, the film leaves me frustrated in places with its subtle tone of judgment about Murphy’s ambition to leave his trailer park neighborhood and the confines of “Backwater” for the larger world. In conversations between Murphy and his future wife, coach and mother, I am left to feel little sympathy for those who would choose a way out. Take, for instance, this dialogue between Murphy and his mother:
Mom: “Things don’t make me happy…you being happy makes me happy.”
Murphy: “I am going to be happy and things are going to be different.”
Mom: “What is so wrong with right now? What if this is all you get, kid? What if this is it? It seems like nothing is ever enough with you, you know! If you can’t be satisfied with what you got, then you’re never going to be happy, no matter what you get…If there was one thing I could change, that would be it.”
In this context, ambition itself seems unredeemable, and liberation in the form of an escape a cop-out. And, if this definition of redemption works for Murphy, it is left wanting in places where violence, oppression, and the trauma of ongoing abuse make staying and blooming downright impossible. In such places, be it an inner-city neighborhood riddled by gang violence, or war-torn Sudan, or a situation of domestic violence, redemption not only demands a way out but depends to a certain degree on both our ability to imagine that “things are going to be different” and our determination to make it so. Murphy chooses to stay- (you’ll have to watch the movie to find out what this really means)-but I am left wondering if there’s any room here for those who don’t have a choice, or choose differently.