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Message Gets Fumbled in Touchback

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 07, 2013
Message Gets Fumbled in <i>Touchback</i>

Release Date: April 13, 2012 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for language, violence, sexual situations, mature thematic elements)
Genre: Drama, Sports
Run Time: 100 min.
Director: Don Handfield
Cast: Brian Presley, Kurt Russell, Melanie Lynskey, Christine Lahti, Marc Blucas, Sarah Wright, Kevin Covais

In the realm of films marketed to the faith-based community—which are, by and large, evangelistic to varying degrees—Touchback is the first one that could be dubbed “seeker sensitive.” It’s a label that in Christian circles has its equal share of supporters and detractors, and depending on which group you fall into will likely determine your reaction to this indie-film that wants to be equal parts “feel-good” and “real.”

As for me, it’s seeker-sensitive to a fault. That is to say it’s so concerned about reaching as wide an audience as possible that it waters down the source of its values. Worse yet, some content (i.e. an extended skinny-dipping scene, a more-than-expected level of profanity) may even offend the core demographic—church audiences—who’ve been asked to come out and support it. In the seemingly deliberate effort to be a little bit for everybody, Touchback comes off as a milquetoast movie that won’t inspire the passions of anybody.

Even more problematic than pulling its thematic punches, the very foundation of Touchback’s narrative conceit is a fantasy that ultimately undercuts the authentic hope the movie so desperately wants to provide. It’d be difficult for anyone who relates to the hero’s struggle to find comfort and help in a scenario that would never happen in real life. The path to healing in Touchback is literally something that could only happen in the movies.

The story opens in early-‘90s smalltown Ohio. Scott Murphy (Brian Presley, Home of the Brave) is the state’s best football player with an assured future of professional success. That all comes crashing down his senior year when, on the final play of the state championship game, he breaks his leg beyond repair. He will never play football again.

Fast-forward to the present. Scott is still in the same small town, a struggling farmer, and limping around in a brace that supports his injured leg. He’s married, his wife and kids love him, but he can’t get past the regrets and what-ifs of a life that should’ve been but wasn’t. With the looming foreclosure of his home and farmland Scott can bear no more, so he decides to take his own life. And that’s when the miracle happens.

Failing to fully asphyxiate himself on gas fumes as he’d planned, Scott passes out and travels back in time to the early ‘90s and the lead-up to that fateful championship game. Rather than having to wrestle with his past in the context of his present like everyone else does, Scott (after having given up on life itself) has been given that one thing nobody in the history of the planet has ever gotten or ever will—a do-over. Yay for him. If only others who battle with depression and suicide could have the same.

Beyond the cliched conceit, this impossible wish-fulfillment follows formulaic beats. Scott sees his old history through a new lens and comes to appreciate—even desire—the things and people he once despised. The grass isn’t necessarily always greener, he comes to learn. Getting your wish isn’t worth it when you have to lose those who are most important. Aaaah, bitterness gone. Well gosh—thank you, Fantasy Time Travel Device.

It’s a whole lotta hokum for a movie that blatantly steals its core ideas from It’s a Wonderful Life without an understanding of why they worked. Capra’s drama is much darker and nuanced, not giving George Bailey a do-over but rather a not-ever (a much harsher lesson for Bailey, one that exposes his selfishness rather than placating to it) plus it’s the result of George’s explicit wish/prayer. There’s a reason, after all, why the “do-over” sub-genre always turns on a wish rather than a suicide: a “wish” and “do-over” go together, they’re fantasies. Getting a do-over from inhaling exhaust just feels weird (as do the 40-ish actors who play their high school selves for the bulk of this movie).

In addition, Scott isn’t remotely likeable. Nothing in the script or Presley’s performance makes Scott a sympathetic character. He’s such a mopey grump (and general narcissist) that it’s hard to feel sorry for his “plight,” such as it is. Thankfully veteran actors like Kurt Russell (Miracle) and Christine Lahti (Law & Order:SVU) substantially elevate every scene they’re in. The only miracle here is how those two (and Melanie Lynskey [Win Win], as Scott’s wife) can bring effortless realism and conviction to a screenplay that is defined by such corny calculation.

Most importantly, James Stewart’s classic literally begins in the context of Supernatural Intervention whereas Brian Presley’s does not; his avoids the Almighty altogether. Instead, Scott simply experiences some benign cosmic magic trick. Which is odd, considering how the faith-based marketing plan touts the film’s Christian values, sells a small group discussion guide, and even pushes Presley’s own personal testimony. 

You get none of that Christian message here; not a mention of God, a prayer to him—not even so much as a single desperate cry to the heavens—or any hint that it was all the merciful hand of Providence at play. Scott comes to a place of gratitude and peace but all he has to thank is his lucky stars (and some weak fumes).

In and of itself, that’s a perfectly fair position for a movie to take. But when you market that movie to a specific audience’s expectations and desires—and then avoid those expectations like the plague—that audience is being financially exploited and played for evangelical patsies.

What we’re left with is a lead actor/producer who seems to have made a film that’s his own do-over in which he can relive his glory days (Presley QB’d Oklahoma’s Jenks Trojans to a State Title back in the ‘90s). If the marketing’s sincere, and the filmmakers genuinely do want the movie to point people to God, they’ve given viewers absolutely nothing to take hold of—not even a vague tea leaf. 

Which brings me back to the common knock against seeker-sensitive churches, because it applies here: Touchback is either embarrassed by or afraid of revealing the very source of its beliefs, and in the process isn’t wooing the seekers it seeks while giving its base nothing more than warmed-over humanism.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Adults get drunk, need to be driven home.
  • Language/Profanity: A few D-words, several H-words, a couple of A-words, the full use of the phrase P.O.’d.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Skinny dipping; no visual nudity, bodies are either severely out of focus or under water, but “teen” men and women skinny dip together for an extended period of time. A girlfriend suggestively stradles her boyfriend in a truck. A girl invites a guy into her house; the insinuation is for sex. A few kisses by girlfriend/boyfriend, as well as a husband/wife.
  • Violence: A severely broken leg; no bone exposed, but the leg is so bent out of shape it’s wince-inducing, even disturbing. General football violence.