Within the first few minutes of viewing "Road to Victory," the feature film debut of writer/director/co-star Mike Reilly, I was cringing...
No, it wasn't because I was seeing anything particularly awful. "Road to Victory" is an intelligently written, well acted and often beautifully photographed film.
Nope. It had nothing to do with the film's rather sensitive subject matter. It is, after all, fairly difficult to shock me anymore.
Instead, I found "Road to Victory" starting off with the same histrionic self-importance of the recent indie darling "Self-Medicated," an autobiographical film written, directed by and starring Monty Lapica.
I began to wonder if "Road to Victory," also based upon a true story, was going to go the way of "Self-Medicated," a festival favorite across the country that received a rather scathing review from this particular critic. I felt vindicated recently when "Self-Medicated" received a limited national release and received more than its share of similarly scathing reviews from critics and audiences across the country.
Was I in for the same thing with "Road to Victory," a film in which Reilly seeks the seemingly impossible balance of college sports, sexuality, human drama, impotence and, well, impotence.
Fortunately, those early moments of discomfort in "Road to Victory" were merely setting the stage for a uniquely constructed, intelligently written and well acted film that tackles football, sex and intimacy issues with equal gusto and intentionality.
The film stars the aforementioned Reilly as Elliot, a college football quarterback on the verge of achieving all his dreams when he sustains a life-changing head injury. While his body seems to heal, Elliot retains an inability to perform sexually. This injury, particularly dramatic given his college student girlfriend is both beautiful and a stripper, eats at the core of his self-image and as he seeks help "Road to Victory" becomes as much a relationship drama as it is a film centered in the world of college sports.
Despite being centered in the sports world and having a strong sexual element to it, "Road to Victory" is most compelling for the intimate ways in which it explores the emotionally volatile relationship between Elliot and his girlfriend, Anna (Julia Anderson of TV's "The Reaper").
Both Reilly and Anderson powerfully portray the conflicting emotions and varied complexities of two individuals who have always found their identities and power in their respective worlds of football and sex when, suddenly, both most cope with a world that is completely foreign to them.
Anderson, a relative newcomer who recently landed a gig on TV's "The Reaper," is particularly successful in bringing to life a young, vibrant woman who can be both cruel and kind, tender and taunting. Anderson's performance is easily one of this year's finest from a lead actress on the ultra-indie film scene, and a clear sign that Anderson is an up-and-coming actress with a dangerous blend of sweetness, sensuality and intelligence.
While it's easy to argue that Reilly may have been a tad better off leaving the acting gig in someone else's hands, nonetheless, Reilly does manage to avoid the histrionics that so plagued Monty Lapica's histrionic performance. While both Elliot and Anna were equal shades of gray, Elliot was more disturbingly so in that it was nearly impossible to sympathize with a man, despite these challenges, who was so completely self-absorbed and insensitive to the world around him.
In a supporting role, Peter Abrams offers a fine performance as the physician who finally offers Elliot hope and, in turn, challenges him to make some very difficult decisions in his life.
While his acting occasionally wavered a bit, Reilly's directing revealed a solid eye for visual presentation and dramatic emphasis, only occasionally becoming stalled by a production design that occasionally felt a tad staged or posed. While there were at least a couple scenes where the thought "Man, that looks posed" entered my mind, it's undeniable that the thought was nearly always followed by "It sure is beautiful, though." Almost inevitably, first-time directors are trying awfully hard to get everything right, and Reilly's obvious eye for film will only become more sharp as he relaxes and trusts his material and his own talent even more.
"The Road to Victory" is currently on the festival circuit, and its uniquely intelligent and insightful script combined with Reilly's sharp eye and Anderson's stellar performance make this a film you'll want to catch if it comes to a theatre near you or when it is inevitably released on DVD.
Here's hoping this "Road to Victory" ends at a local theatre near you. For more information on upcoming festival appearances, you can visit the film's website or Myspace page.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic