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‘Hard Miles’ Review Highlights Mack Fisher's Spectacular Cinematography
April 17, 2024

Written by Dennis Harvey, Variety

A grueling two-pedal route to the Grand Canyon just might provide the course-correction male juvenile offenders need in “Hard Miles.” With Matthew Modine as their teacher-coach, this fact-inspired tale covers familiar redemptive sports drama terrain. But it’s traveled with affectingly understated assurance by director R.J. Daniel Hanna (“Miss Virginia”) and a strong cast, making for a satisfying scenic ride that picked up several festival audience awards last year.

In a film loosely based on the life and work of his character’s offscreen namesake, Modine plays avid cyclist Greg Townsend, welding instructor at a medium-security correctional residential school in Colorado. That job environment is no picnic, given volatile students who can go from bantering to insults to fistfights in a flash. Plus he’s got his own demons to wrestle with — there are flashbacks to an abused childhood, and phone calls from an incarcerated brother keep urging Greg to see the dying father he’s estranged from. Ergo he’s looking forward to two weeks’ solo vacationing on two wheels, traversing three states and 762 miles to the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, the institution he’s employed by is under critical review by government authorities, and in sore need of good PR. (The actual RidgeView Youth Services Center was shut down by the state in 2022, for reasons left out of Hanna and Christian Sander’s script.) Half-joking about the photogenic publicity value of “hoods in the woods,” the facility’s chief (Leslie David Baker from “The Office”) has a backpacking trip in mind for the better-behaved residents. Rather than give up his own plans entirely, Greg instead proposes taking four boys who’ve been making bicycle parts in his class on the odyssey he’d already planned. 

This seems a terrible idea to co-worker Haddie (Cynthia McWilliams), a trained psychologist who often flinches at his blunt responses to flareups from kids with complex behavior issues. The diverse quartet he’s chosen are no exception: Recidivist Woolbright (Jahking Guillory) is a smirking, defeatist foe to all authority. Wiry Atencio (Damien Diaz) has a trigger temper, while burly Rice’s (Zach Robbins) tends to smolder. Rail-thin Smink (Jackson Kelly) exerts control via the self-deprivation of an eating disorder. Because Greg isn’t always the perfect adult role model himself (at one point he calls his charges “stupid crybabies”), Haddie gets saddled with coming along as driver of their supply van.

Given scant prior training, this quarrelsome “team” is off to a rough start, encountering plenty of personality-conflict speed bumps ahead. But “Hard Miles” also conveys the exhilaration of the open road, steep physical challenges conquered, and collective bonding that results. Though we learn little about their individual histories, we can feel how these characters blossom in the rare glow of being allowed to actually achieve something themselves. This ride proves they’re not simply loser delinquents, as they’ve always been told. 

The pacing slackens somewhat around the two-thirds point, then rallies for separate climaxes sentimental (when Greg finally visits his father’s deathbed) and rousing (as the Grand Canyon is reached), both handled with moving restraint rather than heavy-handed melodrama or inspirational uplift. While there’s an occasional corny line here, Hanna and Sander wisely keep dialogue on the humorous and/or argumentative side — after all, these are figures who’ve learned the hard way not to admit emotional vulnerability.

Almost 40 years after playing another driven amateur athlete in “Vision Quest,” Modine is solid as a man who might be that same figure far down a road rougher than expected, his wide-eyed optimism now gone and his sportsmanship carrying the whiff of compulsive escape. The younger actors are very good, if perhaps a bit mature-looking to pass as teens. McWilliams and Baker provide notes of flinty good humor, as does Sean Astin as a bike repair shop owner arm-twisted into being the team’s “sponsor.”

Highlighting the smooth tech and design contributions is Mack Fisher’s widescreen cinematography, which makes the most of numerous spectacular landscape vistas — even if apparently some of them are in reality Californian, rather than from the route dramatized. 

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