Filmmaker Corbin Bernsen seems to know that his latest film is likely to encounter cynical critical resistance. Sure, he’s aiming squarely at a middle-America God-and-country audience with this tale of Soap Box Derby bonding between an aging, 9/11-traumatized firefighter and a young boy who lost his father to the war in Afghanistan. But he’s also clearly interested in making a film of good repute, one that has some chance of transcending the “faith market” stigma and landing a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes—should it ever surface there.
Why do I say that Bernsen seems concerned about critical reception? Because I have rarely seen a film that was so good-naturedly aware of its own conventionality and clichés. Bernsen’s script is full of what cineastes refer to as “meta” moments—when elements of a film, or characters in a film, exhibit a self-referential metaphoric awareness of the artificiality of the medium, and comment on that awareness directly. Google “metafilm” and you’ll see this technique places Bernsen in the company of Scorsese, Hazanavicius, Kaufman, Lynch, Craven, von Trier, Truffaut, Godard, Pasolini, Fellini… Pretty heady stuff. And he doesn’t break the fourth wall with it, in the goofy way that Monty Python or John Hughes (or the Marx Brothers) might have.
But does the technique work when you’re talking about patriotism, faith, and self-built cars that coast downhill without an engine? Yes, actually, it does—especially when Bernsen, as Roy the firefighter who loses a son on 9/11, generates such great chemistry with Dolphin Tale’s Nathan Gamble, cast here as Trey, a boy whose Soap Box Derby dreams are dashed when his dad is killed during his first overseas tour of duty.
The setup during the credit sequence is the most awkward part of the storytelling. Here, in washed-out flashbacks, we come to find out how Trey is first introduced to the Derby, and how he comes to lose his dad. By the time the story proper gets under way, you might be feeling like you’re about to be spoonfed a cinematic helping of cornball schmaltz. But still… there’s that oddly intriguing title and, if you’re like me, that bit of you that wonders, “How on earth do they intend to make Soap Box Derby races dramatic?”
Before very long at all, the pace and style of the film pick up admirably. And there are a great many things to like about it—the production values, the performances, the many unpredictable ways in which Trey and Roy interact and speak with each other, the deliberate silence of other characters, an understated and welcome cameo, and pleasingly unexpected resolutions to various plot threads. I remember being so happy with 1992’s My Cousin Vinny because the writers managed to create narrative tension without resorting to conventional villains, and Bernsen also achieves much of the same effect here.
Further, I was pleasantly surprised that Bernsen wrote so much cynicism and anger into his story, given the target audience. This is good scripting, solid direction, and mostly excellent production—on a microbudget, all while targeting a niche market, even a specific community with whom the writer/director/producer partnered to make the film. And Bernsen doesn’t pander to this audience: he has faith in both its values and its intelligence.
I was very happy to learn more about the history and struggles of the Derby through this film, too. Bernsen is a good man as well as a good filmmaker, one who is concerned with real people as well as his art. In my review of his company’s previous release I wrote, “if the future of indie filmmaking looks an awful lot like Rust… well, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” It’s actually looking like a good thing.
25 Hill is enjoying its world TV premiere this Sunday night on the cable channel INSP, and the 75th annual Soap Box Derby finals in Akron are today! Akron’s partnership with Bernsen on this film has indeed helped save the Derby.
Be sure to check out the special features on the DVD, too, if you see the film on DVD, now available as the flagship release from EchoLight Studios, distributed through partner Funimation. You should be able to find it at most major retailers, like Walmart, Fry’s, and Amazon, though it doesn’t yet appear at Netflix or Redbox.