Features Live Action Movies

Hard Miles

Director – R.J. Daniel Hanna – 2023 – US – Cert. 12a – 108m


A youth facility social worker takes a group of troubled young men on a transformative team bicycle ride – out in UK and Ireland cinemas on Friday, May 31st

Day-to-day life is one thing after another for Colorado medium-security correction school staff member Greg Townsend (Matthew Modine). He is in court defending, failing to get the court to see one of his charges as a human being rather than someone who committed an offence. Leaving, he finds someone has stolen his bicycle (it later gets found by the police, having sustained only minor damage). He is fielding calls from his prison-incarcerated brother about their father, who is in a care home and may not have much longer to live, and with whom Greg has not had contact for years. He is at the school, pulling boys apart as they attack each other for the most trivial remark.

However, not everything is about work and family responsibility. Greg is a cycling enthusiast, and is looking forward to taking his booked holiday of a week or more off cycling 1 000 (well, 762) miles to the Grand Canyon. Except that his boss Skip (Leslie David Baker) wants him to fill in that week, which Greg isn’t going to do. Skip is under pressure to show the facility’s backers that it is achieving results with its troubled young men. Somewhere along the line, a plan hatches in Greg’s head, and he convinces Skip to let him take three of the troubled youths on the 762-mile journey with him. They are Smink (Jackson Kelly), Atencio (Damien Diaz) and Rice (Zachary T. Robbins). Smink has eating disorder issues. 

Greg secures the help of colleague Haddie (Cynthia Kay McWilliams), who has injured her leg and is on crutches, as the backup minibus driver. She signs up on the condition that he include difficult boy Woolbright (Jahking Guillory) as one of the team, as she believes the boy has leadership potential. Greg also secures bike shop owner friend Speedy (Sean Astin) as a sponsor. Greg teaches the four boys how to build their own bikes in the school workshop and sets about coaching them how to ride them as a peloton which, as he explains, comes from the same root word as platoon – it’s all about working as a team.

That sets everything up for the main body of the film, which covers the five-strong peloton cycling the 762 miles from the school to the Grand Canyon, with the boys facing various personal challenges along the way. Woolbright causes difficulties from the outset, starting off with not wanting to wear cycling gear, which is designed to overcome wind resistance and suchlike, and enable faster bicycle speeds. 

At the same time, Skip hits something of a funding crisis with the school, which means among other things that the boys may not have a school to return to when they get back. And at a certain point, the local sheriff gets involved when an APB is issued for the boys who have gone missing.

What you see on the screen taps into landscape, particularly the high altitude roads of the Sierra Nevada, the deserts of Utah and – ultimately – the Grand Canyon National Park. Modine and his four young co-stars were schooled in and do all the cycling onscreen themselves; the ensemble acting here is heavily physical. That combination of landscape and physicality pervades much of the film.

Which is a peculiar experience, since movies are about sitting for two hours in a dark space watching a screen, yet here the bulk of those images are about physical activity in the open air. As a viewing experience, there’s something oddly exhilarating about that.

Modine is a huge asset through all this. His character, too, might be described as troubled – there are disturbing flashbacks involving his father – yet he seems to thrive in the challenging circumstances of his job, determined to make as difference to the lives of those in his care. He projects a likeable, tough leadership; perhaps trying to be the adequate father figure to the four boys that he himself never had. It’s a terrific piece of screen acting, a striking addition to his body of work. He is very much the soul of this film, which is unimaginable without him.

One should add that the four boys, who faced much the same level of physical challenge as Modine on the shoot, but by way of contrast are at much earlier stages in their acting career, also impress. Like Modine, if you removed them, you wouldn’t have a film.

All of which is a testimony to director Hanna, who co-wrote the script with producer Christian Sander. Hanna has done a remarkable job of pulling together all the elements needed to tell this story: not just the sine qua nons of script and casting, but also, in this instance, schooling five actors to a degree of cycling competence, finding breathtaking locations in the great outdoors and shooting the proceedings so that you feel, in the cycling scenes, that you’re riding alongside the various protagonists.

This is one of those ‘based on a true story’ films. Hanna didn’t feel the film could have been made without the cooperation of the real life Greg Townsend, who was initially sceptical that his story could be turned into a movie but ended up an invaluable consultant on the production.

Although the four young men portrayed face very specific life challenges, the narrative transcends these to take on more universal significance. It feels grounded, with a great deal of humour not to mention heartbreak springing from the characters. It’s the sort of movie that could so easily slip into the trap of being a well, meaning, ‘worthy film’, yet somehow its groundedness and humanity avoids such pitfalls. You come away with a sense of cycling in hard, sun-baked, wide-open conditions, and of a disparate group of no-hopers finding themselves in pursuit of a seemingly impossible, common goal. Altogether a remarkable film, well worth your time. Kudos to all involved.

Hard Miles is out in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on Friday, May 31st.


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