Small Town Athletes Search for Faith in ‘Run the Race’

As hard as they try, faith-based films can’t help but loop back around and preach to the choir. “Run the Race” tells one of those eternal stories of youth and football, where young prospects must overcome adversity to chase their dreams. The difference here is that there is one key, main player who (based on your perspective) never makes an appearance, God. Because all the drama is essentially based on proselytizing a religious belief, the movie reduces itself to feeling like nothing more than a sermon, with little conflict and quick resolutions achieved through simply praying.

In a small Southern town Zach Truett (Tanner Stine) is the star of his high school football team, especially after scoring five (!) touchdowns in one game. He lives with his also athletic brother Dave (Evan Hofer). The brothers are nearly orphaned, having lost their religious mother and left stuck with an aimless, alcoholic father, Michael (Kristoffer Polaha). This caused Zach to question his faith. But Dave is a devout church-goer, ready every Sunday morning with his Bible, while Zach would rather stay on the couch. Zach, hateful of his father, is hoping to take his team to state and grab the attention of a scout, this way he can go to college and get out of town. But Zach has some lame drinking buddies for friends and he soon gets into a fight that leaves him injured, and benched for the season. Frustrated, Zach tries to at least get a date with a hot nurse, Ginger (Kelsey Reinhardt). As fate would have it, Ginger is herself a very serious Christian, and isn’t keen on dating a doubter. Life throws another hurtle when Dave’s epileptic seizures returns. Yet this won’t stop him from attempting a comeback as a track runner. Zach begins to feel the pressure that for his life to get right, he needs to first get right with God.

“Run the Race” is so full of religious assurance and preachiness that you wonder who the specific audience is aside from devout evangelicals. Two of the main producers are football star turned baseball player Tim Tebow and his brother Robby. Tim has become a Christian celebrity of sorts, supporting pro-life causes and announcing to the world that he will remain celibate until marriage to his Miss Universe fiancé. Director Chris Dowling and writers Jake McEntire and Jason Baumgardner try to keep the movie away from the usual faith-based movie niche, which tends to deal either with the culture wars (God is Not Dead) or apocalyptic theology (Left Behind). The filmmakers deserve credit for managing to express a powerful belief through an accessible story. “Where you fall in the faith spectrum,” Dowling recently old Entertainment Voice, “you still question things. If I can make my characters feel real, and there’s a layer to them that’s the faith layer, I think that resonates.” Dowling is well aware of the reputation faith-based films have, and shared about an agnostic filmmaker friend who doubts the genre can ever truly go mainstream. “I think you need to give the audience credit. I think a lot of the faith-based films, and I’m not dogging anyone out in particular, but they don’t give the audience any credit and have to basically tell you everything. Life is messy.”

But the inevitable flaw with these kinds of films when they try to go mainstream is that they box themselves in. At least last year’s surprise faith-based hit, “I Can Only Imagine,” dealt with a Christian singer trying to get a record deal (as he too dealt with a boozing dad). In “Run the Race” the conflicts amount to little and the resolutions are jaw-dropping simple. Zach isn’t a true rebel, he’s not a hardened atheist or a choir boy suddenly going bad. He’s written as a teenager understandably not feeling the whole church thing after his mother suddenly passed away. He hurts his knee in a fight, but it’s not a permanent injury, so his great challenges remain learning to be nice to his dad and getting Ginger to be his girlfriend. When he has dinner with Ginger’s evangelical parents and confesses he’s stayed away from church since his mother died, they respond with wide smiles and the assurance that everyone struggles with their faith. Even Michael isn’t necessarily a raging, darkened man. He’s clearly just depressed over losing his wife, not the most inexplicable development. All it takes is for Zach’s coach, Hailey (Mykelti Williamson) to tell him he’s being irresponsible and might miss out on his sons to make Michael drop the booze and do a total switch around. All it takes for Zach to be on Ginger’s good side and find himself back in full form on the field is to take the knee and pray. “It’s about moving to a place where it’s an authentic layer, and not just a message movie,” is how Dowling himself described the challenge.

“Run the Race” follows the tactic of many recent faith-based films of getting marquee talent to help boost the title’s appeal. Nicolas Cage faces the End Times in “Left Behind,” Dennis Quaid is a raging alcoholic in “I Can Only Imagine.” Here Mario Van Peebles is given a rather small, background role as Pastor Baker, who appears here and there to share some wisdom. Frances Fisher has more presence as Louise, Zach and Dave’s aunt and godmother, who guides Zach towards self-reflection. Stine and Hofer do generate a real sense of camaraderie, maybe because in real life they are indeed good friends. Stine recently told Entertainment Voice that, “It happened quick.We lived together the entire five weeks we were in Alabama.” It is the sense of dynamic between the brothers that drew him to the role. “I have two little brothers, so I was able to immediately connect with it.”

“I’ve always wanted an older brother, I have an older sister, which is great,” added Hofer. “I’ve always wanted to have that experience with that person who would be with you unconditionally.”

“I don’t know what I would label myself as,” said Stine. “I think that this did a good job of opening mind up and my heart up to anything and everything. I’ve only grown in faith, however you want to define that sense.”

This is precisely what the filmmakers are hoping “Run the Race” inspires in the viewer. It’s a sincere work, even if we remain unconverted.

Run the Race” opens Feb. 22 in theaters nationwide.