Entering the minor canon of movies named after sports regulations—move over, Offside!—Don Handfield’s Touchback takes a handoff from Peggy Sue Got Married and It’s A Wonderful Life and runs it up the middle for a modest gain. A struggling soybean farmer when the film opens, Brian Presley was a high-school hero in tiny Clearwater, Ohio, a statewide football phenomenon whose promising career ended with a leg shattered in a triumphant touchdown drive. Twenty years later, all he’s got to show for it is a weathered medal and a mountain of debt, placing him a sole failed harvest away from losing everything he owns. As the town prepares to celebrate his historic victory, Presley falls victim to a string of misfortunes that seem to extinguish the last flicker of hope, so he parks his battered pickup truck on a bluff overlooking the football field, plugs the exhaust pipe, starts the truck, and waits for the backed-up CO2 to do its work.
When he comes to, it’s two decades earlier—although altered haircut notwithstanding, Presley doesn’t look a day under 40. He’s dating a pretty blonde cheerleader rather than the mousy band geek (Melanie Lynskey) he’ll end up marrying, and his future is full of possibility rather than a dead-end street. With the mind of a father of two rather than a self-involved teenager, he’s no longer interested in picking on nerds, but his altered consciousness doesn’t seem to derail the overall timeline. Touchback is interested in revisiting history, not rewriting it.
Although the movie eventually settles into a parable of personal choice and the acceptance of fate, Handfield seems to lose track of his central device for much of the movie’s middle section. Presley looks the part of a washed-up jock, but he’s too limited and inexpressive an actor to convey the omnipresent weight of his future life. Kurt Russell makes a few swift appearances as Presley’s coach, and Christine Lahti lifts a few scenes as his hard-working single mom, but Lynskey ends up shouldering the heaviest burden, trying to make sense of the star QB who’s never spared her a glance and now talks of running off together. With more audacity, Handfield might have managed to cover new ground, but he plays it safe in a realm where safety doesn’t pay.