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CIFF 2023: Hard Miles

October 23, 2023


An American cycling drama based on a true story isn’t necessarily what I’d expect to see programmed at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), but then again I’m not gonna shrug off a film that is sets out to tell an inspiring story that most viewers will be unaware of. Directed by R.J. Daniel Hanna, who co-wrote with Christian Sander, “Hard Miles”, the story of a social worker who leads a group of troubled teens on a long-distance cycling expedition from Colorado to the Grand Canyon in order to empower them and give them confidence, and help them see what else is out there in the world beyond the limits they are used to.

Matthew Modine stars as Greg Townsend, a social worker and avid cyclist, who’s worked at Rite of Passage’s Ridge View Academy in Watkins, Colorado for some 30 years. It’s a school run by the Division of Youth Corrections (DYC) and home to some of the state’s most violent juvenile offenders. Townsend primarily taught welding there and as we get to know him at the opening of “Hard Miles” he is looking forward to spending some time off cycling from Colorado to the Grand Canyon. With the help of his colleague, Haddie (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), he realizes that certain boys at the reform school could really benefit from experiencing what he’s about to embark on as a holistic approach to therapy.

Despite their reluctance, Townsend teaches four male students how to build their own bike and convinces them to follow him on a 762-mile bike trek. Through some simulated and practical training, Townsend is able to coach these boys into as close to riding shape as possible. Haddie follows them in a van for physical and mental support, utilizing her background in psychology, and along the way Townsend and the four boys have to figure out how to work together and overcome obstacles (and an especially challenging crossroad) on their ambitious journey.



In such a story, it’s all about the journey. The audience will no doubt know that there will be no fatal injury, nor will this be a story where the team doesn’t meet their goal – or why else tell it? Hanna and Sander know that what matters in such a story is who the cyclists are. How the film goes about communicating that and the footage of the actual cycling is most important here. There’s a subplot running throughout for Modine’s character that indicates why he can relate to these troubled youth, but also something personal that he’s having trouble dealing with as well. Modine does a fine job at conveying the internal struggles Townsend deals with in his personal life, while doing his best to keep these boys on task.

All the actors pedaling on these bikes were actually doing the work in “Hard Miles” and it shows. There was no green screen or CGI involved. It was all shot on various California locations (such as Death Valley) and eventually the Grand Canyon. In fact, for some of these young actors, the first time they saw the Grand Canyon was on film when their characters first saw it. Talk about getting a natural response. The actors playing the boys (Jackson Kelly, Jahking Guillory, Damien Diaz, and Zach T. Robbins) don’t necessarily look like teens, but they do a good job at putting in the work in such a physical role. “Hard Miles” also stars Leslie David Baker (“The Office”) as a facility director and Sean Astin as a bike shop owner friend of Townsend’s who winds up sponsoring the trek.

It’s quite possible that “Hard Miles” will garner attention from “Stranger Things” fans, since it stars two alumni from that hit show: Modine and Astin. Ultimately, it’s an inspiring, straightforward story, reminiscent of some of the cycling movies from the 70s and 80s. The message of trusting in yourself and keep moving forward is universal one for any viewer in any situation.

Currently still working the festival circuit, “Hard Miles” will likely get an official release date within the first quarter of 2024.




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