A prison social worker assembles a cycling team of teenage convicts and takes them on a transformative 1,000-mile ride. Inspired by the life of Greg Townsend and the Ridgeview Academy cycling team.

Chuck says:

For over 20 years, Greg Townsend has been taking a unique approach to his job. Instead of employing group therapy sessions or work-release programs to help those at the Ridgeview Youth Detention Center, he takes them on the road. No vans or buses are used, no truck stops, or rest areas are employed. These troubled young men ride bikes, ones they make in Townsend’s welding class. And we’re not talking a 10- or 20-mile spin but rather a cross-country trek, sometimes over 700 miles in length, a journey he uses to open their eyes, not just to the beautiful environment they travel through, but to the strength and perseverance many of them don’t realize they possess.

Townsend’s story is the inspiration for R.J. Daniel Hanna’s “Hard Miles,” a predictable but effective “sports-is-life” exercise that winds up being far more effective than it has any right to be. While a faith-based film would have taken a ham-fisted approach and applied the sentiment with a trowel, Townsend eschews grand theatrics and refuses to spoon feed the audience. Co-written with Christian Sander, the director allows the story and its theme to slowly grow, one that wins you over by not forcing itself on the viewer.

The charter for the center where Townsend (Matthew Modine) works is under review and in danger of not being renewed. Its director, Skip Bowman (Leslie David Baker) is in need of a feel-good story to help convince the powers that be that what they are doing is worthwhile. Having already planned to ride 762 miles through three states, the final destination being the Grand Canyon, Townsend suggests he take four of Ridgeview’s more troubled boys along with him, reasoning, “If they see a bigger world, they may want to be a part of it.”

At first glance, the quartet in question seems to be taken from central casting. Having been abused and neglected, Atencio’s (Damien Diaz) anger over the hand he’s been dealt is so great, it’s libel to consume him. Smink (Jackson Kelly) suffers from an eating disorder and a compulsion to sabotage himself, while Rice ‘s (Zachary T. Robbins) impulsivity and immaturity has landed him in more trouble than he bargained for. However, Woolbright (Jahking Guillory) is the hardest case of all, disillusioned by too many broken promises, his tattered self-esteem is likely to lead him to ruin.

As these five cycle through the American Southwest, trailed in a van by Haddie (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), a counselor from the center, they realize they have much in common, come to prize loyalty, discover the power of working as a team, and find they have great reserves of strength. No surprises here, but the four young actors are very genuine, finding a way to channel a degree of sympathy and humanity through the stereotypes they’ve been saddled with.

Equally good is Modine, getting the rare starring role that allows him to shine. Employing restraint, his reassuring presence giving the film a foundation of honest sincerity which is necessary if films of this sort are going to succeed.

The script contains one to many crises and Townsend’s backstory, concerning his relationship with his abusive father, is never developed fully, coming off forced and clumsy. Yet, it’s hard not to be taken in by the grandeur of the movie’s scenery or its message. To be sure, “Miles” goes down a well-traveled narrative road, but Hanna and Sander prove that a familiar journey can still have a positive effect on those who take it.

3 1/2 Stars

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