23 Blast is something of a perverse achievement, in that it often perfectly recreates the tone and feel of the super-cheap, sub-competent regional B-movies of the 1950s: the corny humor, the awkward intermingling of experienced and inexperienced actors, the slack editing, the leaden pace, the deadened sound design, the pragmatic two-shot compositions. Set and produced in Corbin, Kentucky (population: 7,368), the film tells the mostly true story of local boy Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka, who sort of looks like a teenager), a star high school football player who loses his sight to bacterial meningitis and then returns to the field with the help of family, friends, and good old-fashioned faith. (In reality, Freeman lost his sight at age 12.) It is a heartfelt, earnest piece of flatly lit Americana, made in a hypnotically dull style usually associated with mid-century industrial filmmaking.
Being a bona fide small-town curio, 23 Blast has no shortage of the unintentionally funny and surreal. Co-writer and Corbin native Bram Hoover is cast as Travis’ troubled best bud, Jerry, despite looking not a day over 30; the age discrepancy is not-so-cleverly disguised by dressing Hoover in a variety backwards baseball caps and Aeropostale duds. The dialogue has a circular, staccato quality (“I want you to play.” “Play what?” “Football.”), and lines that are presumably meant to be understated instead come across as comically vague and clunky. (“There was too much infection,” says Travis’ father when his son asks why he can’t see.) Hapka’s impression of blindness consists in large part of over-emoting and flailing his arms around wildly. The game-time scenes are dubbed, which is hardly unusual for a noisy exterior; what’s unusual is that the players speak in quiet indoor voices, as though they were whispering to each other from 10 feet away.
The film’s most memorable and singularly strange sequence finds Travis in church, listening to a guest deliver the sermon. He moves his head, searching for the voice. Who is this pastor whose snoozy speaking is so thoroughly inspiring Travis, this stranger whose eyes focus on no point in particular? Why, it’s the real, grown-up Travis Freeman, who will become a pastor and, presumably, will cross oceans of time to find and inspire his teenage self.
The oddest thing about 23 Blast, though, is that happens to be directed by character actor Dylan Baker, the preeminent timid creep of American movies and TV. Baker appears in the film as well—wearing a very suburban mustache—as Travis’ dad, and his wife, Becky Ann Baker, gives a credible performance as Travis’ rehabilitation coach, Patty Wheatley. In fact, the best thing that can be said about 23 Blast is that its better-known cast members—like Stephen Lang, who plays Travis’ coach—don’t thoroughly embarrass themselves, mostly because the pokey script and Baker’s ambition-free direction don’t give them much opportunity to. After a while, the viewer begins to wish the movie had a bit of cloying, howling camp about it. Bad doesn’t always have to be boring.