Review: ‘Tyson’s Run,’ starring Rory Cochrane, Amy Smart, Major Dodson, Layla Felder and Barkhad Abdi

March 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Amy Smart, Major Dodson, Barkhad Abdi and Rory Cochrane in “Tyson’s Run” (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

“Tyson’s Run”

Directed by Kim Bass

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional U.S. city of Stanbridge, Georgia, the dramatic film “Tyson’s Run” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An autistic 15-year-old boy, who was homeschooled for his entire life, convinces his parents to let him go to a public high school and compete in a marathon for adults.

Culture Audience: “Tyson’s Run” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching unrealistic dramas with horrible acting.

A scene from “Tyson’s Run” (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

The sappy and subpar melodrama “Tyson’s Run” is built on the faulty and ludicrous concept that a 15-year-old would be allowed to compete against adults in a U.S. city’s 26-mile marathon. It all goes downhill from there. Putting aside the fact that the movie gets it wrong when it comes to age-requirement legal issues for legitimate full marathons in the U.S., “Tyson’s Run” is plagued with terrible acting and cringeworthy dialogue. The movie also does a disservice to representing the real challenges faced by people with disabilities by oversimplifying these issues and warping reality for the sake of a poorly written movie.

Written and directed by Kim Bass, “Tyson’s Run” can at least be commended for casting a real-life autistic actor (Major Dodson) in the title role of Tyson Hollerman, an autistic 15-year-old who unrealistically gets to compete in a marathon for adults. The movie takes place in Tyson’s hometown of Stanbridge City, Georgia, and it will be the city’s first marathon. Faster than you can “idiotic melodrama,” Tyson is entered into the marathon, which will be his very first marathon after getting what the movie depicts as only a few months of training. Unfortunately, the trailer for “Tyson’s Run” gives away about 80% of this movie’s dreadful plot. (You can also easily predict the ending.)

In real life, underage kids can compete against adults in some marathons that have a limited length (usually less than 15 miles), but not in a full marathon of 26 miles. For obvious legal reasons and health reasons, underage children do not compete against adults in full marathons. All the filmmakers had to do to make “Tyson’s Run” a little more believable would be to make Tyson an 18-year-old in his last year of high school. As it stands, Tyson is the only underage child who’s competing in this marathon.

But the phoniness of the marathon age issue isn’t the only problem in “Tyson’s Run.” How this underage kid is trained and the issues surrounding his training are bogged down in clumsily handled nonsense. The movie makes it look like all you need to do to prepare for a marathon is jog with a trainer for a few months. “Tyson’s Run” has no realistic talk about diet, weight and other exercise needed for this rigorous training.

In the beginning of “Tyson’s Run,” viewers see that Tyson is homeschooled by his homemaker mother Eleanor “Ellie” Hollerman (played by Amy Smart), and that his parents have grown emotionally distant from each other. Tyson’s father Bobby Hollerman (played by Rory Cochrane) is a hard-driving, successful football coach at Pope High School in Stanbridge City, and he’s considered a local hero. When Bobby is interviewed on a local TV newscast, it’s mentioned that he is the “winningest high school football coach in the state,” with a record of seven undefeated seasons and five consecutive state championships.

Tyson’s desire to go to Pope High School is triggered when he wants to learn algebra, but his mother Eleanor can’t teach him algebra. Tyson is somewhere on the autistic spectrum where he has an encyclopedic memory of facts, but he’s socially awkward. His personality is generically nice, but not particularly memorable or unique, which is typical of unimaginative movies with protagonists who overcome obstacles. It’s pretty obvious from watching the movie that Tyson’s parents, at some point in Tyson’s life, gave up on trying to get him to socially interact with kids of his own age, until Tyson expressed an interest in going to Pope High School.

In the beginning of the movie, Tyson is leading a very isolated existence, where his mother seems to be the only person in his life who wants to emotionally connect with him. When Bobby comes home from work, he barely talks to his wife and child. Family meals around the dining room table are strained with tension-filled conversations. Tyson speaks to Bobby in a formal way, by calling him “father” instead of “dad,” and by asking Bobby questions as if Bobby is a schoolteacher, not a father.

It’s mentioned later in the movie that Tyson was born with a genetic health issue that caused his autism. This health issue becomes a concern when Eleanor finds out something life-changing that will affect the family. It’s a subplot in the movie that’s used as an excuse for why Eleanor gets sidelined a lot, so that the movie can have the men in Tyson’s life be mainly responsible for his training.

Because it’s already shown in the “Tyson’s Run” trailer, Tyson enrolls in Pope High School, even though Bobby is initially reluctant for Tyson to go to the school, because Bobby doesn’t think Tyson is ready. It’s the first time that Tyson will be attending school with other kids. And you know what that means in a formulaic movie that has a school of underage kids: Tyson encounters a bully.

The bully’s name is Bradley Burton (played by Isaiah Hanley), who is jealous of the fact that Tyson is very “book smart.” In a biology class that Tyson and Bradley have together, Tyson outshines everyone with his knowledge, while Bradley makes doltish and sarcastic remarks to the teacher. Bradley also taunts Tyson by calling him “Forrest Chump,” because Tyson has mannerisms that are similar to the fictional Forrest Gump character.

In the school cafeteria during a lunch break, Bradley plays a cruel prank on Tyson, by inviting Tyson to sit at the same table, but then suddenly kicking the chair away, just as Tyson is about to sit down. Tyson predictably falls down, with the contents of his food tray spilling all over him. Bradley and his friends then laugh at Tyson.

And in yet another movie cliché, Tyson befriends a girl who might become his love interest. Her name is Shannon (played by Layla Felder), who sees Tyson being the victim of Bradley’s bullying in the cafeteria, and she comes to the rescue by inviting Tyson to sit at her table. Shannon also sticks up for Tyson by yelling at Bradley: “You’re such a jerk!”

One of the movie’s failings is how it never really shows Tyson’s parents having any heart-to-heart talks with him to prepare him for life in the real world. “Tyson’s Run” is just a series of very poorly staged scenes leading up the inevitable marathon climax. An example of a clumsily written scene in the movie is when Tyson tells his parents about Shannon, and he asks them how he can tell if she’s a “friend” (platonic relationship only) or a “girlfriend” (romantic partner). The parents never answer his question.

At school, Bobby lets Tyson watch him coach the football team. Bobby knows that Tyson isn’t cut out to play football, even though Tyson repeatedly asks his father if he can join the team so that he can become a champion too. Instead, Bobby only allows Tyson to clean up after the football players.

One day, Tyson is on the sidelines of the school’s football field when he sees a man running on the track nearby. Tyson spontaneously follows the man and jogs alongside him. The man doesn’t seem fazed or curious about why some random teenager is running next to him, because in an overly contrived movie like “Tyson’s Run,” this man just magically appears out of nowhere to become Tyson’s eventual trainer.

His name is Aklilu Jimale (played by Barkhad Abdi), a Somali Ethiopian immigrant who is a former marathon champion, with victories at prestigious events such as the New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon. Even though there’s nothing special about Tyson’s running, the movie wants viewers to believe that he’s some kind of running prodigy. Aklilu immediately notices Tyson’s “talent” and encourages him to take up running as a sport.

Whenever Tyson gets very upset (such as when he hears his parents arguing about him), he runs away to nearby areas. The movie uses these incidents to mention, without showing any real proof, that Tyson can run faster than the people who might be looking for him. Just because someone can run fast doesn’t make that person equipped to run a marathon, which is a sport about endurance as much as it’s about speed.

During one such “runaway” incident, Tyson runs into a busy street and almost gets hit by a car. The street happens to be right in front of the athletic shoe store owned by Aklilu, so Aklilu literally comes to Tyson’s rescue by saving him from a potentially fatal car accident. Aklilu invites Tyson into the store, and that’s how Tyson finds out about Aklilu’s experience as a marathoner.

There’s another part of the movie where Aklilu becomes the “magical rescuer” in a “too good to be true” moment. Details of that incident won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that this incident convinces Bobby to be a better father to Tyson and be more supportive of Tyson’s dream to run in Stanbridge City’s very first marathon. Tyson is allowed to compete, with no one mentioning the problematic issue of his age.

Instead, the movie makes it look like Stanbridge City’s mayor Clarence W. Coleman (played by Reno Wilson) has more of a problem with Tyson getting attention for being a marathoner with autism. The selfish and ambitious mayor wants to get most of the glory for the marathon. And so, when Mayor Coleman sees a newspaper article about Tyson getting praised for being in the marathon, the mayor calls Bobby into a meeting to try to get Bobby to withdraw Tyson from the marathon.

Mayor Coleman says to Bobby in a very tone-deaf and bigoted comment: “I can’t have this thing turned into a social cause for the mentally handicapped.” The trailer for “Tyson’s Run” already reveals that Tyson gets to compete in the marathon, so Bobby’s response to the mayor is a foregone conclusion. The entire purpose of this scene between Mayor Coleman and Bobby is to make a point about some people’s ignorant and prejudiced views about autism, as personified by the mayor.

As bad as the screenwriting and direction are for “Tyson’s Run,” the acting isn’t much better. As Tyson’s mother Eleanor, Smart over-acts (and not in a good way) and has a not-very-believable Georgia accent that drifts in and out of her performance. By contrast, Cochrane gives a deadweight, wooden performance that might be a reflection of how emotionally disconnected Bobby is, but Cochrane seems to be emotionally checked-out in this movie too. The rest of the cast members awkwardly recite their lines, and a few of the supporting cast members are downright amateurish.

“Tyson’s Run” has some religious preaching, but without being too forceful or obnoxious about it. Still, the movie seems to be made with a faith-based audience in mind. It’s not an excuse for “Tyson’s Run” to be such a sloppily made, terribly conceived movie that could have been so much better if it had taken the time to address important issues more realistically and with more emotional intelligence and with good cinematic quality. Marathon enthusiasts and people with autism deserve a much better movie than “Tyson’s Run.”

Epic Pictures will release “Tyson’s Run” in select U.S. cinemas on March 11, 2022.

Review: ‘A Girl From Mogadishu,’ starring Aja Naomi King

July 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

“A Girl From Mogadishu” 

Directed by Mary McGuckian

English and Somalian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Somalia and Ireland, the drama “A Girl From Mogadishu” (based on a true story) has a racially diverse cast (white and black) representing Somalian natives and refugees and Irish politicians and social workers.

Culture Clash:  Ifrah Ahmed escapes war-torn Somalia for a life in Ireland, where she becomes a social activist campaigning to outlaw female genital mutilation.

Culture Audience: “A Girl From Mogadishu” will appeal primarily to people who like stories about social justice issues and immigrants who overcome difficult challenges.

Barkhad Abdi and Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

The dramatic film “A Girl From Mogadishu” (written and directed by Mary McGuckian) takes on two very difficult subjects—war-torn Somalia and the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM)—and tells the story from the perspective of someone who’s experienced both in real life. The movie is a biography of Ifrah Ahmed, who fled Somalia when she was 15. She ended up in Ireland, and became a leading activist in a campaign to outlaw FGM, which has been a forced ritual (mostly inflicted on underage girls) in African cultures for centuries.

Aja Naomi King (who is American) gives a compelling performance as Ifrah, from the ages of 15 to her 20s. The entire movie has her voiceover narration, which works well in some scenes, but doesn’t work in others. The movie begins on December 28, 2006, with Ifrah running for her life on the day that’s known as the Fall of Mogadishu, when the militaries of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and Ethiopian troops invaded the Somali capital.

Ifrah becomes separated from her family (her grandmother, her father and her brother) after the military raided the family home. She ends up in an empty house, where three military soldiers rape her. Ifrah has an aunt who lives in Minnesota, so Ifrah thinks her best chance for a life outside of Somalia is to go to the United States to live with her aunt.

Ifrah boards a bus to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From there, she plans to go to the United States. But she has a close call in Addis Ababa when she finds out that she boarded the wrong bus, which is controlled by a sex trafficker.

She runs away from the wrong bus and boards another bus, which leads her to a family with a son named Hassan (played by Barkhad Abdi), who tells Ifrah that he can take her to the United States. The movie doesn’t make it clear how Ifrah was able to pay for this service, since it’s obvious that Hassan isn’t going to all this trouble out of the goodness of his own heart. This missing detail is an example of one of the flaws in this movie’s screenplay.

Hassan provides Ifrah with a passport and specific instructions to follow him and imitate what he does when they’re at the airport. It’s the first time that Ifrah ever gets on an escalator and goes on an airplane, so she’s understandably terrified. But when Ifrah and Hassan leave Ethiopia, they don’t arrive in the United States. They arrive in Ireland’s capital city of Dublin instead.

Ifrah is angry and confused over why Hassan lied to her, but he explains that Ifrah cannot stay with her aunt in Minnesota because her aunt is not a legal immigrant in the United States. Hassan tells Ifrah that she can seek asylum in Ireland. And then he drops her off in the cold winter night at a Dublin Asylum Seekers’ Center with nothing more than a note written in English with her name and why she needs asylum.

Because she is an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum, Ifrah is put into a group home called Ashton House and is placed under the care of social workers. She experiences major culture shock, not only because she can’t speak English but also because she has difficulty adjusting to the type of food that’s eaten in Ireland. In one scene, when a male social worker laughs at how Ifrah eats a bowl of cornflakes with her bare hands, she gets irritated and throws a shoe at him.

Ifrah is reprimanded, but she is able to communicate with the social worker that what she’s really frustrated about is not being able to speak English. With the help of a Somalian translator at Ashton House, Ifrah is able to better communicate with the staff. Ifrah has also become friends with another Somalian refugee at Ashton House. Her new friend is Amala (played by Martha Canga Antonio), and they both help each other learn English.

Ifrah’s life takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when she has her first medical exam in Ireland. The doctors are shocked to find out about her FGM. At first, Ifrah mistakenly thinks that their horrified reaction is because they think she’s HIV-positive. The doctors tell her she’s not HIV-positive and that they’re upset by the mutilation of her genital area. Ifrah replies, “This is my culture.”

However, when Ifrah figures out that FGM is not normal and is a major stigma in cultures outside of Africa, she’s overwhelmed by shame and starts sobbing uncontrollably. The next thing you know, there’s a flash forward to Ifrah as an anti-FGM activist giving a speech to a group of politicians. This sudden flash-forward scene is a little jarring and an example of better editing choices that director McGuckian could have made, since the movie keeps jumping back and forth in time in a way that doesn’t always transition smoothly.

The rest of the movie shows Ifrah’s anti-FGM activism and the increased progress and media attention that she and her allies received for this issue. With the help of Ireland’s Labour Party politicians Emer Costello (played by Orla Brady) and her husband Joe Costello (played by Stanley Townsend), Ifrah was able to get FGM outlawed in Ireland. And, accompanied by a NGO (non-governmental organization) rep (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), Ifrah travels to Africa to further her cause to get FGM banned.

The movie also depicts how Ifrah eventually opened up and went public with all the harrowing details of what happened to her during her FGM torture. She was mutilated at 8 years old with several other girls, and they were tied up for 40 days with a very limited ability to urinate. One of the girls got a urinary tract infection and died.

There’s a scene where Ifrah goes back to Somalia to confront her grandmother for allowing the FGM to happen to Ifrah. Hassan pops up out of nowhere and tells Ifrah, “Good girls keep things private and don’t talk.” Ifrah replies defiantly, “I will not be silenced! Not now, not ever, not even for my family!”

“A Girl From Mogadishu” has an important story to tell, but there are some flaws in how it’s told. The dialogue and narration are often simplistic and predictable. And the movie needed better editing, so that the story didn’t seem so choppy and jumbled during the flashback and flash-forward scenes. However, the acting, especially from King in the lead role, elevates the often-trite screenplay. Her performance is worth watching, even if she has to say a lot of lines that could have been written better.

The production design (by Emma Pucci) and costume design (by Nathalie Leborgne) complement the movie very well. For example, the film does a convincing recreation of Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Ireland, with Ifrah among the thousands of people who went to see him give an outdoor speech in Dublin. Ifrah is also involved in doing fashion shows to raise money for her cause. Those fashion shows are depicted quite nicely in the film.

There are many scenes in “A Girl From Mogadishu” that look like a made-for-TV movie instead of a truly cinematic experience. Despite its flaws, “A Girl From Mogadishu” has emotional authenticity and respect for the traumatic subject matter (the real Ifrah Ahmed was a consultant for the movie), considering that FGM is rarely acknowledged in narrative feature films. This movie will help make people more aware that trying to stop FGM is not just a “women’s issue.” It’s also about human rights.

Showtime Women premiered “A Girl From Mogadishu” on July 15, 2020, and the movie is available on Showtime’s on-demand platforms. Pembridge Pictures will release the film internationally from November 25, 2020 to December 10, 2020.

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