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Published Sep. 1, 2011

Seven Days in Utopia (G) (100 min.) - In addition to being one of the finest golf movies ever, this film raises the bar on faith-based cinema, a shoestring genre typically marked by lower production values than this. Seven Days in Utopia is a lovely film giving "squeaky clean" a better name, with a Christian message going down easily for secular audiences, too.

Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black) suffers an embarrassing meltdown on the 18th hole of his first pro tournament. Flashbacks show it's the result of a father (Joseph Lyle Taylor) pushing a prodigy too hard, and daddy is now Luke's caddy. Seeking to escape the pressure, Luke drives off to nowhere and winds up in Utopia, a Texas town guided by the gentle hand of Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall, superb as always).

Johnny is something of a golf whisperer, offering to clean up Luke's game if he spends a week in Utopia. Training sessions are unusual, to say the least. Johnny has Luke literally paint a difficult shot to hone concentration, go fly fishing in a canoe to learn balance, and pitch metal washers into a cup to sharpen his putting. I'm not sure these methods work, but Duvall's performance could convince me of just about anything.

Between lessons, Luke begins a chaste flirtation with Sarah (Deborah Ann Woll, HBO's True Blood), irritating a local suitor (Brian Geraghty). But even this cliche gets turned around, with the men bonding over that washer-pitching game and a hilarious round of "cowboy poker" at a rodeo. Everything in Utopia is steeped in Christian values but not overtly until the final act, when Johnny lays his God cards on the table. By then, the film is so compelling that I'd follow the old man to church.

Director Matt Russell should end the movie there, but he tacks on Luke's uplifting comeback at a tournament against the odds. It's too pat and conventional until an open-ended fadeout intended to lure viewers into closer examination online about Christian faith. Yet Seven Days in Utopia possesses a spiritual sincerity that's impossible to shrug off as mere zealotry. The movie certainly preaches to the choir, but if it catches on with audiences, somebody had better build more pews. B+

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