Again, With Hindsight

'Touchback' transfers the structure of 'It's a Wonderful Life' to a high school football field

Every holiday season, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life re-emerges on TV to remind us that people used to be nicer—or at least more idealistic. But the film is rightfully a classic, and James Stewart proves with each viewing that his Everyman beats just about anyone else's.

Touchback is, for all practical purposes, It's a Wonderful Championship Game, updating the story in a rural Ohio town where football is everything. For Scott Murphy (Brian Presley), football is his ticket out of that small town. The best high school quarterback in the state, he has a full-ride scholarship waiting for him—and after that, perhaps, the pros.

On Scott's last play in the championship game, his leg is mangled, so there go all his dreams.

Fast-forward about 20 years, and Scott has a bit of a gut, a leg brace and a limp, and no real prospects for the future. He farms soybeans in what he's told repeatedly is corn country. He can barely make ends meet for his wife and two daughters, and he owes the bank money he'll probably never earn.

Just when Scott is at his absolute lowest, he stumbles into the wayback machine and finds himself—somehow—back in high school, and it's the week before that ill-fated championship game. It's not Scott as a high school senior, but middle-aged Scott in his younger body, giving him the benefit of hindsight as he prepares for what should have been the springboard to a better future. His wife (Melanie Lynskey) is back in the marching band, and his high school coach (Kurt Russell) and late mother (Christine Lahti) are full of life.

It sounds incredibly lackluster, doesn't it? But Touchback is so earnest and grounded (outside of that going-back-in-time business) that it's tough to eye-roll through most of the scenes. Yes, it's sappy, but Scott's struggle is portrayed with real conviction. It isn't exactly full of surprises, but the script effectively greens the grass on the other side while keeping the story moving.

There should be a rule that Kurt Russell gets the first right of refusal for coach roles. He was fantastic as Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in Miracle, a sports biopic that wouldn't be worth its salt without him. He was even good as a horse trainer in Dreamer, if you can believe it.

Here, Russell brings the intensity, believability and natural ease that has marked much of his career. Most of his scenes are what you'd think, but there are a couple of key moments that echo throughout the film. At one critical point, the coach who has seen it all tells Scott, "The future is just a bunch of right-nows strung together," urging his star player to make the best decision for himself and his team in the present—and to trust that what happens next will play out accordingly.

Brian Presley doesn't have a lot of name recognition, and he wouldn't be the best choice if this film had a significant budget. He looks good under the helmet, which stands to reason: Presley won a state championship and put up a 24-2 record as a high school quarterback in Oklahoma, and they take their football pretty seriously there. As a teenager, though, he suffers from the same affliction that lots of actors do in this position: He's not 17. Or even 24. Presley turns 35 this year, and as sound as most of Touchback is, this is a big gaffe. His performance is quietly effective, but, as they say, Father Time is undefeated, and Presley's age really shows.

One thing most sports movies get entirely wrong is the sport itself. Touchback, on the other hand, features some very convincing football scenes. In the championship game, there are a couple of things that could never happen, of course; that's true about every sports movie ever made. But on the whole, it looks like a high-stakes football game. And if football is a metaphor for life—and it certainly is for Scott Murphy—then the more realistic the action is on the gridiron, the more impact his off-the-field issues have.

Given its rather overt borrowing from one of the most-beloved films ever made, Touchback is something of a surprise. It goes where you know it will go, and there's nothing spectacular about the performances outside of Kurt Russell—but there's still enough anticipation built in to make it more than a formulaic exercise.

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