Missing Links, by Josh Long
In golf, the player’s goal is to get the ball from the tee to the hole. In between there can be a lot of work, sometimes frustrating and difficult. Seven Days in Utopia (based on David L. Brooks’ novel Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia) is a film about golf, but also a film about Christian faith. Its biggest weakness, however, is trying to get us from the tee of golf to the green of faith without having to deal with the necessary strokes in between.
Lucas Black plays hot-shot young golfer Luke Chisholm, who loses his cool on the 18th hole of his first PGA tour appearance. The blow-out not only puts him completely out of the running, but also becomes a highlight on the Golf Channel’s TV coverage of the event. Leaving the course in a huff, accidentally crashes into a fence in rural Utopia, Texas. The fence owner, Johnny (Robert Duvall), takes him in, finds a place to get his car fixed, and introduces him to the small town. Almost everyone takes Luke in immediately, and when he finds that Johnny is an ex-PGA golfer himself, he accepts the offer to take seven days of lessons from the old man.
What we are meant to see is that Johnny isn’t just giving golf lessons; he’s giving life lessons. There are a series of unconventional “exercises” he assigns to Luke, making him incredulous as to how this might help his golf game. At the end of the week, it turns out that the old man was wiser than Luke thought. It serves the movie well, but the “old man uses unconventional means to teach young man about his sport” is certainly an overdone plot device (from Karate Kid to Talladega Nights).
By the last day of “training” the movie tries to say that this has all been to teach Luke about faith. If you’re familiar at all with the world of Christian film, you know that a lot of overtly Christian films will feature a scene or sequence where we see a character’s “conversion experience.” You can almost feel the filmmakers of Seven Days in Utopia holding back for most of the film, but now they finally give up and go whole hog with the sermon. Duvall delivers a poignant voice-over narration through the sequence, and I wouldn’t fault the message. But the film has not done enough, at this point, to connect faith and golf. When Johnny begins to explain to Luke that faith is what’s most important, Luke gets choked up and overcome with emotion. What he should be doing is giving his mentor a confused look and saying “what does this have to do with my game?” The shift in theme seems forced and unnatural. If this is the message the filmmakers want to deliver, it should be woven more intricately into the rest of the story. As it is, it feels like the filmmakers gave you a book to read, and when you weren’t looking, switched it with a tract.
Robert Duvall, unsurprisingly, gives the film’s strongest performance. It’s most obvious alongside actors who don’t know how to deliver clichéd dialogue. Duvall knows how to take lines that might be obvious or uninteresting, and make them sound like something a real person would say. Lucas Black, on the other hand, delivers his lines with all the nuance of an after-school special. In scenes where he has to play bigger emotions (e.g. his breakdown on the golf course) he’s believable. In emotionally smaller scenes where he’s required to perform with some subtlety, he comes off as hokey. Unfortunately, this is most of the movie. Jessica Ann Woll as love interest Sarah does a good job, but the character seems unimportant to the overall story. Her effect on Luke’s personal growth is questionable, and we wonder if she’s just there to give him something to do when he’s not golfing. In an odd turn, Oscar winner Melissa Leo appears in a good but very minor performance – so minor that it wouldn’t be worth mentioning if she wasn’t an Oscar winner.
There is another weakness that may come from the film’s G-rated Christian attitude – the story seems to avoid even inherent conflicts. The characters have conflicts with each other, to be sure, but the conflicts are all resolved without any kind of confrontation. Are we meant to believe that each of these characters work out their differences internally and apologize? If so, it’s not very interesting to watch. Luke, it is revealed in flashback, has major issues with pressure from his caddy father. The blow-out on the course might even be his father’s fault. But the next time they see each other, his father apologizes immediately. In the same way, a small rivalry brews between Luke and Jake (Brian Geraghty) over romantic attention from Sarah. The conflict is there, but the resolution seems to come for no reason – they spend an afternoon pitching washers (look it up) with old Johnny, and now they’re friends. Avoiding the confrontation keeps both Jake and Luke’s father from being able to express why they are the way they are.
The film does look pretty; it’s shot well and in a beautiful pastoral setting (if you don’t think Texas is a beautiful setting, then you’ve probably never been there). The music fits, but is ubiquitous to the point of invasiveness. The production and costume design seem a little preoccupied with reminding us that we’re in Texas. I know people from Texas are proud of it, but I’m not sure there’s a scene in the movie without Texas-shaped knick-knacks on the walls or someone wearing a Longhorns hat.
I will say that the very end of the film does more for the core theme than I was expecting. Similar movies have, if unintentionally, presented the message that Jesus will help you win at sports (such as Friday Night Lights, also starring Lucas Black). The ending of Seven Days in Utopia effectively drives home the idea that winning isn’t the point. Expecting something more cliché for the ending, I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
It’s a noble attempt to attach deeper spiritual ideas to something more tangible, but the connection needs more groundwork. The basis for interesting characters is there, but in avoiding their conflicts, we don’t get to see them fully develop. A lot of the set-up for a good movie is here, but there isn’t enough follow through. And as any golfer will tell you, it doesn’t matter how well you stroke the ball, if you don’t have the proper follow through.