Seven Days in Utopia
Predictable, But Surprisingly Good

I was really looking forward to sitting down to write about Seven Days in Utopia.  I don’t get to review films that surprise me nearly as often as I like to—and Utopia definitely took me places I didn’t expect.  But then another surprising film called Snowmen came along, and I wrote it about it first.  And I’m afraid I might have used up my superlatives prematurely.  (Reviewers, you know, have written word limits in the same sense that men and women in general have oral word limits… and mine tends to run on the low side.)

But I will try to do justice to this oddly pleasing film about an aspiring pro golfer who loses his stroke in a gory and public meltdown… then finds his game again in quasi-Karate Kid style after his car breaks down in a tiny Texas town.  With a golf course.

Robert Duvall, who hasn’t played this likable a character in a long, long time (having cornered the market on “cantankerous” some decades back) is the Utopia, Texas golf course owner and former pro who coaches Luke Chisholm through a new way of thinking about life… and golf.  As you might expect, Duvall’s Johnny Crawford is all kinds of quaint and homespun as he dispenses wisdom and arcane frippery Luke’s direction.  Lucas Black, meanwhile (he of Sling Blade and Friday Night Lights fame) applies all his native Alabama charm to the wild bronc of a duffer that Crawford must tame.

Matthew Dean Russell, director of Seven Days in Utopia

As you might also expect, Luke finds a grounded free spirit in strawberry blonde horse whisperer Sarah, daughter of Johnny’s late student.  Luke and local boy Jake tussle like rutting elk over the lass’s attentions, and there’s some doubt about whether Luke is taking golf or romance more seriously.

Eventually, though, after the titular week, Johnny brings Luke to a decision point: will he continue to define himself by the expectations of others, or will he answer a higher calling?  Will he finally master himself by letting go of the reins in favor of divine purpose, or will he simply chase success and winning?

I’d like to basically stop my story synopsis there, because for many viewers that’s plenty of story.  Particularly given the film’s G-rating, faith-market pedigree, and quasi-altar-call moment in Utopia’s church, thus far it feels an awful lot like an A-list Sherwood picture.

But I can’t let it rest there.  Because thus far, all you’ve really gotten is the two-act summary.  Luke’s real story starts when he leaves Utopia… and goes pro.

So I guess I’m spilling the beans a little in telling you that the third act finds Luke in a winner-take-all scenario with a PGA stud played by pro golfer K.J. Choi.  And this third act almost plays like an entirely different film—even though it follows the Karate Kid / Rocky story formula to a tee.

Both “halves” to this film, though, as predictable as they often might be, are beautifully crafted—and the difference in tone between the first two thirds and the final act seems not only appropriate but invigorating.  As pleasant as Utopia might be, the Real World ought to (and does) feel different.  Special-effects whiz and first-time screenwriter/director Matthew Dean Russell directs all of this like a seasoned veteran.  (It probably helps to have Duvall, an award-winning writer and director in his own right, on board.)  Compositions are sumptuous, lighting is divine, and the settings feel both right as rain and otherworldly.

Russell really coaxes first-rate performances from an A-list cast that also includes Kathy Baker, Melissa Leo, and TV’s Debra Ann Woll as Sarah.  The latter, when she is not red-carpeted or gothed out, is about as appealingly down-home as you get and is a good match for Brian Geraghty’s hotheaded Jake.  Duvall has really never been better, and Black—who has always been a magnetic screen presence, even as a child—is in top form here, too.  Russell has a bright, bright future when he can handle both the technical and performance ends of things as well as he does here.

But the real bright spot of the film for me, as much as I normally cringe at closing narrations, is the way that Russell chooses to wind up this links-based parable about life.  I honestly think that, as cheesy and forced as cynics may rightly find this film, it has about as good a chance at being life-changing as any film I’ve seen.

If you’ve got a ton of anger, frustration, and supposedly righteous indignation bottled up inside you—and it’s wrecking your life—you could do one heckuva lot worse with two hours of that miserable life than sitting down with Luke Chisholm and learning a thing or two about actually living.

I’m really glad I watched this film (and I really didn’t want to).  And I’m glad to have the opportunity to share good words about it with others.

Seven Days in Utopia is rated G.  Not that kids would have the least interest in this film whatsoever.  (And that tells you a thing or two about the romance, too!)

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of Seven Days in Utopia.