In Seven Days in Utopia, a mild- mannered young golfer has a mild meltdown during a tournament. That's followed by seven days of perspective-patching among mild-mannered God-fearing folk in rural Texas. Faith and "fore" walk hand in hand — sort of — in this soft-centered faith-based drama starring Lucas Black of Friday Night Lights, Get Low and Jarhead.
Based on David L. Cook's self-help novel, Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia, first-time director Matt Russell's film follows aspiring pro Luke Chisholm (Black) as he explodes in a contained fury during a televised tourney where he had hoped to earn his pro tour card.
We've met the domineering dad (Joseph Lyle Taylor) who caddies for his son and caused Luke to snap. We follow Luke as he flees the spotlight on his worst day on the course, turning up at a ranch in a small town where he figures nobody will know who he is.
Robert Duvall is sage old rancher Johnny Crawford, who enters Luke's life on horseback. He takes him in (Luke has dinged his car) and makes Luke ponder questions of life and golf: "How could a game have such an affect on a man's soul?"
Luke applies Johnny's life lessons on the course. He swaps wisecracks with the locals. And he meets fetching Sarah (Deborah Ann Woll of True Blood), who is "trainin' to be a horse whisperer."
Oscar winner Melissa Leo and wonderful character actress Kathy Baker are here to lend, well, character. But mostly, this is about Johnny playing guru to Luke — making him visualize and "paint" (literally) the shot he visualizes, ordering him to learn balance by standing in a canoe, patience by fly fishing.
If golf is "a good walk, spoiled," then Seven Days is a potentially good golf movie watered down. It goes into the rough with the staging of Luke's supposed "meltdown." Yeah, it's a game about decorum and self-control, and yes, this blow-up happens on TV. But ask 40 golfers about their worst tantrum on the course, and 35 of them will top this milder-than-mild one. In flashbacks, we see the (mildly) domineering dad who set the stage for Luke's bad day and get a sense of the (mild, again) pressures the kid is under. Perhaps that explains the lack of heat in the meltdown.
The movie opens with a Bible quotation: Isaiah 30:21, "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'" But the film seems to lose its nerve about this, too, soft-selling religion as it rubs rough edges off the characters.
Seven Days is beautifully shot — all rosy-hued back-lit backswings. And Black, an avid golfer, makes a convincing pro. The film's charm comes from its lighter moments. Duvall and Black have a warm mentor-student rapport.
Golf doesn't lend itself to great filmmaking, but as we saw with Tin Cup and The Greatest Game Ever Played, there are ways to finesse that — with color, with humor, with creative shot-making. This one treats its subject as if it's a tap-in for par; thus, most of the best clubs were left in the bag.