Give 4 Minute Mile a bit of credit for being self-aware. When a gruff-but-loveable track-and-field coach (Richard Jenkins) jokingly invokes Pat Morita’s “wax on, wax off” line from The Karate Kid, it’s as if screenwriters Josh Campbell and Jeff Van Wie are momentarily having fun with the clichés of the inspirational sensei-student sports drama. Unfortunately, the rest of their movie is po-faced all the way. This film about the loneliness of the young middle-distance runner drops so many heavy obstacles in his way, with such grueling regularity, that it’s like he’s practicing to be a hurdler instead.
After the childhood trauma of witnessing his father’s death, Drew (Kelly Blatz) has grown up into a wary, watchful teenager, sullenly subordinate to his drug-dealing older brother Wes (Cam Gigandet), whose bad behavior has them both on the road to nowhere. Their mom (Kim Basinger) doesn’t have the energy to guide them down a safer path. Enter Coleman (Jenkins), who—stop us if you’ve heard this one before—sees raw potential in the kid. He offers to train him, on one condition: Drew has to leave his usual 400-meter distance behind and practice for the more measured, grueling mile run—an obvious metaphor for the idea that in life, as well as athletics, slow and steady wins the race.
Showing determination, though not dexterity, director Charles-Olivier Michaud cuts back and forth between these two narratives—the underworld intrigue and the off-the-grid coaching routine—and mines both for their respective clichés. It’s not necessarily a compliment to say that he finds the motherlode in both cases. Nothing in 4 Minute Mile feels fresh, and the scenes of brotherly bickering between Drew and Wes are positively moldy. Drew and Coleman’s relationship is a bit more compelling, partially because the mechanics of training-montage cinema are basically irresistible, and mostly because Jenkins is the kind of generous veteran actor who can make even the most uncertain performer look good.
He definitely has his work cut out for him with Blatz, who seems to have been cast more for his physique and his fast, churning legs than his acting chops. Not that his thinly written role gives him much to do. Similarly, the talented Analeigh Tipton is basically reduced to cameo duty as Drew’s supportive girlfriend. (She’s introduced as a runner too, but ends up on cheerleader duty in the final scenes.) The main offender here is Gigandet, who tries to play against his bland handsomeness as an amped-up bad-boy, and gives a performance that reeks of effort. There’s a similar redolence to 4 Minute Mile overall—the odor of a hard-working but underachieving movie that’s 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration.