Touchback is not a compelling movie, although it is rife
with compelling ideas, which only makes processing my feelings for it that much
more difficult. It has some good things to say about the choices we make in life
and learning to appreciate what we have; what’s missing is a plot capable of
supporting these messages fully. If you’re going to infuse an inspirational
sports drama with the fantastical concept of time travel, there’s absolutely no
call for half-heartedness. You have to be completely audacious and commit to it
fully. Otherwise, we in the audience have no real reason to willingly suspend
disbelief. To an extent, writer/director Don Handfield made an honest effort.
The issue is, that extent should have been the entire film, not just specific
Taking place in the blue-collar community of Coldwater, Ohio, where the
population seems permanently set at 2,700, it tells the story of Scott Murphy
(Brian Presley), who was the star quarterback of his high school’s football team
back in 1991. During the big game, his leg was injured beyond repair, forever
ruining his chances of pursuing college football, making a name for himself, and
getting himself and his hard-working mother (Christine Lahti) out of Coldwater.
Now in his late thirties with his left leg supported by a brace, he’s a walled
off and bitter man who numbs his pain with alcohol and grueling volunteer
firefighting. He’ll stare at old home videos of his games without really seeing
them, and he’ll secretly drive to a spot where he can watch the current high
school team practice.
He’s married to Macy (Melanie Lynskey), who was volunteering at the hospital
at the time of his accident. With her, he has two young daughters, who only
crave his affection. In a town that has nosedived economically due to the
closing of the local plant and the 2008 recession, he has received a bad loan
for acres of soybeans that aren’t growing fast enough and are about ready to
fail. Unless he can turn a profit in the course of one day, his home and all his
land will be foreclosed. He has so much pride that he can’t even bring himself
to tell Macy that they’re in trouble. Knowing he has ruined not only his life
but also the life of his family, he drives to a remote spot, stuffs a rag into
the exhaust pipe of his truck, gets back in, turns on the ignition, and hits the
accelerator. Black fumes seep in. A few coughs, and the screen fades to white.
When Scott comes to, he realizes that his leg is no longer in a brace, that
his beard is gone, that he’s wearing jeans and a varsity jacket, and that
everyone he once knew is back in his life again. Somehow, he has been
transported back to 1991. He’s a high school student again! The catch is that
he’s aware of what will happen over the next twenty years, which will make for
some awkward conversational moments. He reunites with his best friend (Marc
Blucas) and his sexy high school flame (Sarah Wright), who, following the
accident, will end up becoming an item. He also reunites with his coach (Kurt
Russell), whose name, Hand, is an apt metaphor for his guiding words of wisdom.
Most importantly, he will reunite with Macy, who at that stage of her life was a
mousy member of the school band.
I understand what the filmmakers are trying to do here. By making Scott aware
that he has gone back in time, they’re giving him the opportunity to reflect on
his mistakes and alter his future – specifically during the big game, which he
will play again. The point is to make him see that life is about the living in
the moment and not focusing on the past or the future. The flaw is that Scott is
lectured by characters that don’t have the luxury of knowing what he already
knows. I’m sure if any of them had gone back in time with Scott, they might have
been just as tempted, if not more so, to change history. He is, of course,
continuously sidetracked by his love for Macy. For her teenage self, this is a
bit jarring; Scott has a hot cheerleader girlfriend and never once gave a plain
girl like Macy the time of day. She has to wonder where this newfound affection
is coming from.
As well intentioned as it is, the film’s positive, life-affirming messages
are bogged down by an ending that provides plenty in the way of emotional
resolution but absolutely nothing in the way of logistics or plausibility. I’m
all for feel-good moments. In fact, I actively seek them out. All the same, I
prefer that they stem from scenes and situations that actually make sense. And
then there are the illusion-shattering casting choices, Presley, Blucas, Lynskey,
and Wright playing high school students despite the fact that they each look
every bit as old as they actually are. Presley and Lynskey, for example, are
thirty-four, and Wright is twenty-eight. The most obvious is Blucas, who’s now
forty. Touchback has its heart in the right place, but it
rarely uses its head.