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Family Movie Review: Heroes of Dirt (PG-13)

HeroesOfDirt ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalhalf popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG-13       Length: 98 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is about an unlikely friendship between a mid-20s aspiring BMX rider and a troubled teenager, and there is some cursing and language, some violence (gunshots, the threat of using a torch as torture device, some fistfights), a few kisses and jokes about sex, a joke about prison rape, some characters smoking and drinking, gross-out scenes in a dirty bathroom (a toilet explodes on someone), and drugs as a primary plot point, with drug dealing and drug stealing portrayed (not positively, though).

‘Heroes of Dirt’ doesn’t deliver anything different with its story of an unlikely friendship between an aimless adult and a troubled teen; its inspirational message is familiar. But the film’s unpretentiousness helps that message sink in.

By Roxana Hadadi

There are few surprises in “Heroes of Dirt,” a film about the friendship that develops between a mid-20something aspiring BMX rider and a teenager struggling with a difficult home life and neighborhood drug dealers. Although the film begins near the end and aims for maximum tension with threats of prison time and torture, “Heroes of Dirt” means too well for its characters to truly get hurt. But while it’s overly familiar, it’s not ineffective—the film’s earnestness, if obvious, goes a long way.

“Heroes of Dirt” is clearly a passion project for filmmaker Eric Bugbee, reportedly taking six years to complete and finance, and you can tell there is great affection and knowledge here for BMX riding and the film’s Allentown, Pennsylvania, location, where it was also shot and where Bugbee is from. The most exciting parts of the film are the bike rides, running away from cops or gallivanting through the woods, and for teens who are into the sport, those scenes will be invigorating.

And that’s really who the film is for—teens into BMX specifically, or broadly, any young athletes unsure of whether they want to skip college and try to go professional. There’s a cautionary tale in “Heroes of Dirt” that is uncomplicated but straightforward, and the film should spark conversations between parents and kids about whether “following your dreams” is a practical idea in the long term.

The film focuses on 26-year-old Phin Cooper (Joel Moody), who has been trying to go pro in BMX for a decade. An above-average student who didn’t go to college because he was focused on making his dreams come true, he’s estranged from his parents—only stopping by their house to steal snacks and toilet paper—and barely covering expenses with a job at a local bike shop. But he can’t stay away from his BMX bike, even when it gets him into a series of altercations with local police officers.

Already on probation and facing charges for trespassing, fleeing police, and destroying city property, Phin is assigned to work 45 hours at a local community center for troubled and at-risk teenage boys. The schedule of cleaning disgusting bathrooms certainly isn’t glamorous, but Phin has bigger goals: He’s been invited to the Heroes of Dirt BMX competition, and first prize is $25,000. If Phin is ever going to make it, this is his chance.

There are always complications, though, and Phin’s comes in the form of teenager Blue Espinosa (William Martinez), one of the kids at the shelter who is intrigued by Phin’s BMX bike instead of mocking it. The two form a friendship over Blue’s interest in the sport and his natural talent, but he has a drug-addicted mother with an abusive boyfriend who doesn’t pay attention to him, and neighborhood drug dealers trying to pressure him into working for them. When his problems become Phin’s problems, their friendship is negatively affected—and Phin’s chances for winning Heroes of Dirt and finally achieving his dream are hurt, too.

The film is told from Phin’s point of view, and his narration fills us in, with lines running from enlightening to seriously hokey. Some of the corniness of the dialogue might make teens roll their eyes, and there is the problem that all of Phin’s development is shown in comparison with other people’s problems—he realizes how great his life is when he sees how difficult Blue has it, and he only begins to develop real feelings for a would-be girlfriend when he learns she won’t make him choose between her and his bike. Other characters are limited so the focus can continue to be on Phin, but at least his trajectory is a realistic one, and should create discussion between teens and parents.

That’s not to say that “Heroes of Dirt” is a groundbreaking film; this is a movie that has a character named Torch who in fact uses a torch as a torture device, so it’s not particularly imaginative. But the realism “Heroes of Dirt” employs is its strongest asset, and that’s what makes it suitable as a low-key family night choice for teens and parents.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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