Bobby Hollerman’s life is a study in extremes.
His public life? A portrait of glory and triumph. As the football coach of the Pope High School Greyhounds in Standbridge, Georgia, Coach Hollerman has led his team to seven undefeated regular seasons and five consecutive state championships. When asked by a TV reporter what his secret is, the confident-but-terse coach sounds as if he could be channeling the ghost of Knute Rockne: “Trust. Hard work. Dedication”
Action, not words, is what matters most.
Except at home. Here, things could hardly be more different. Bobby’s 15-year-old son, Tyson, has never gone to public school. It’s not because he’s not smart. He is. Brilliant, even. But Tyson’s impossible-to-miss autism makes every social interaction painful. People don’t know how to respond to his formal, robot-like speech patterns and his penchant for uttering unfiltered truths. So his longsuffering mom, Ellie, has homeschooled him his entire life. They share a close bond while dad stays perpetually at work doing his football thing very successfully.
But Tyson’s fast-moving mind has progressed beyond his mother’s ability to teach him. It’s time for him to go to high school. Bobby fears—not without good reason—about the kind of reception his awkward son will receive.
“I was homeschooled until yesterday,” Tyson earnestly tells his snickering class the second day of school. Bradley, a popular student with a stereotypical mean streak, mocks Tyson and (of course) yanks a chair out from beneath him when he tries to sit down at lunch. And then there’s the inevitable name-calling. It’s a rough start.
But something unexpected happens as Tyson helps his dad during football practice one day. He notices a man running around the track. Naturally, Tyson sprints off to join the man, an Ethiopian shoe-store owner named Aklilu. Friendship blossoms, and Aklilu takes Tyson under his wing to train him as a runner.
In fact, Standbridge will soon be hosting its first marathon. Tyson wants to run. His father, though, fears he’s setting himself up for further ridicule. “A marathon is a very, very long race,” Dad says, trying to talk him out of running. “It takes a very special kind of runner with a lot of training to even compete in a race like that.”
But Tyson is determined to prove that he is exactly that: “a very special kind of runner.” And he just might be.
The story of Tyson’s Run is about a young, autistic boy’s determination to prove—to himself, to his dad, to everyone—that his dream of running (and maybe even winning) a marathon is possible. Along the way, his mentor, Aklilu, provides invaluable help and encouragement.
Tyson’s Run obviously focuses on its titular character. But in other ways, the film is also about the metaphorical road—sometimes one broad path, sometimes two separate and lonely forks—that his parents walk, too.
It’s clear from Bobby’s often terse, impatient treatment of his son that Tyson is something of a disappointment to him. In fact, when the boy hears his mother hurl that accusation at her husband one night, it prompts Tyson to climb out his window and sprint off into a raging thunderstorm. (More on that below.)
Ellie’s criticism of her husband, though painful, is on target. Bobby obviously doesn’t know what to do with Tyson or how to relate to the boy. All he knows is football and achievement, the twin pillars that have been the foundation of his professional life. Gradually, though, Bobby is pulled out of his self-absorption as Tyson begins training in earnest for the marathon.
A crisis proves a turning point for Bobby as he commits wholeheartedly to his family (not to mention risking his own life to save Tyson’s). We also watch as he has a flashback, telling his newborn son in the hospital, “You fight. And your daddy will always fight for you.” Indeed, when the town mayor suggests that Tyson’s participation in the marathon will lead to the wrong kind of social media attention, Bobby says that Tyson will indeed run: “My son might have some challenges, but it’s nothing that we are afraid of.”
Ellie has suffered through a marriage in which she’s channeled most of her love into caring for her son while minimizing the fact that her husband often has the emotional intelligence of a pet rock. She’s committed to loving, teaching and accepting Tyson for who he is, though dealing with his special needs has been a demanding, constant responsibility.
As Tyson blooms as a naturally gifted runner, and as Bobby reconnects with his wife and son (and even takes a leave of absence from coaching to dedicate himself to his family), long-lingering hurts begin to heal.
Aklilu is a well of deep wisdom. We hear how he has coped with a particular injustice in his life, and how he sends half of the money he makes back to his family in Africa. Even when a misunderstanding causes Bobby to treat the man harshly with little explanation, Aklilu responds with grace and forgiveness.
A kind student named Shannon tries to help Tyson when he’s picked on in school. A friendship grows into something a bit more as the story develops.
As for Tyson himself, the boy is a picture of gritty determination. He pursues his goal of not only finishing, but winning his first marathon, with fierce determination in a story that inspires us never to sell others short, even when their dreams might seem impossible. Throughout Tyson’s Run, he clings to the words of encouragement and wisdom that have been said to him during the film.
Though this is a Christian film, the spiritual elements of the movie are more on the periphery than at the very center of the story.
We see the Hollerman family saying grace before a couple of meals. Bobby appears to lift his head skyward in a desperate, prayerlike gesture at one point. Among a crowd of people cheering on runners, we see large, hand-held sign that reads, “Jesus Saves.”
A church service finds a pastor quoting from John 15: “The son can do nothing on his own accord, but only what He sees His Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the son does likewise.” At the end of the film, we see the words of 1 Corinthians 9:24: “Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
Tyson is very interested in the idea of kissing, asking Aklilu about it repeatedly at one point in a scene played for comedy affect. Eventually, Shannon’s friendly affection for him evolves into a bit more, and the two become a couple. We see her kiss him on the cheek.
We see Bobby and Ellie in bed together in pajamas in a couple of non-sexual scenes. (In both, they argue about how Bobby’s failing as a father to Tyson.)
Ellie repeatedly vomits from morning sickness. There’s concern that the couple’s unborn child will likely have the same genetic disorder that’s apparently (the film suggests) contributed to Tyson’s autism. Bobby repeatedly implies (without ever coming right out and saying it) that she should get an abortion. But Ellie is determined to fight for her unborn child, telling her husband that she’s keeping her baby. At the end of the film, we see Tyson talking to his infant sister.
During an anatomy class, a high school teacher holds up various internal organs and asks students what they are. Bradley crudely jokes, “penis.” And then, “vagina.”
We see several guys without shirts, including Bobby as he gets in the shower. Ellie wears a cleavage-baring top. A high school girl wears a revealing tank top that shows her midriff. A man at a bar kisses the female bartender.
Later, Bradley uses a mirror on his foot to try to look up a female teacher’s skirt. She eventually notices, but Bradley swiftly kicks the mirror toward Tyson. Until students who’ve witnessed what happened tell her otherwise, she wrongly believes and accuses Tyson of that lewd behavior.
After the incident with the teacher, Tyson runs away from school, unable to process his intense emotions at being wrongly accused of something he didn’t do. He runs into traffic in downtown Standbridge, causing cars to screech to a halt and people to yell at him before Aklilu rushes into the street to help him move to safety.
Tyler exhibits the same behavior after hearing his parents argue one night, climbing out his bedroom window and running off into a vicious thunderstorm. He ends up at a state park, one leg pinned beneath a tree that’s been struck by lightning, water rising to the level of his chin. A tip leads state patrol officers, as well as Bobby, to the park. When an officer is bitten by a rattlesnake, they call of the search. But Bobby persists.
Ellie nearly has a miscarriage, and we see some drops of blood fall on the floor from beneath her dress before she goes to a doctor.
[Spoiler Warning] Bobby finds Tyson but is unable to free his leg. Eventually, Aklilu arrives as well (whom Ellie has called), saving them both. Tyson has hypothermia and needs a night in the hospital to recover, but is otherwise unharmed. Bobby, we learn, was unable to help Tyson because of a bad shoulder injury he received in football years before. (In the shower scene mentioned above, we see scars on his shoulder and knees from, apparently, multiple surgeries.)
Before the marathon starts, Tyler gets knocked down and skins his knee pretty badly. We see it bleeding throughout the race, but it’s only a superficial injury.
Bobby says “d–mit” when he’s unable to free Tyson’s leg from the tree underwater. Tyson tells him, “You said a bad word.” Bobby replies, “I’m sorry, son.”
We hear several uses of “oh my god.” Out of his earshot, people call Tyson “retard” and “idiot.” High school put-downs include “big butt” and “butt-for-faces.” Shannon tells Bradley, “You’re such a jerk.”
A man at a bar has a drink as he watches the marathon coverage on TV.
[Spoiler Warning] It’s revealed that Aklilu was disqualified from his New York City Marathon victory after failing a drug test. The Mayor of Standbridge spits accusingly, “Keep that drug-taking, blood-doping sneaker salesman away from my cameras and the real runners.” Aklilu’s mistake also prompts Bobby to limit the man’s access to Tyson. Eventually, Aklilu tells the family what happened: He’d taken an over-the-counter medication for a cold the day of the race that he didn’t realize included a banned drug.
Bobby eventually does what’s right by Tyson and Ellie. But for much of the movie, he’s gruff, distant and really not-very-likeable at all. At one point, Ellie perhaps implies that she’s getting close to the end of her rope in their marriage due to his complete emotional and relational absence.
The town’s mayor is a piece of work, too. He wants to “put Standbridge on the map” with the marathon, and he fears that Tyson’s participation will garner coverage that the mayor sees as negative. He tells Bobby to pull Tyson out, but Bobby stands his ground.
As Tyson runs his marathon, moving up through the ranks, Aklilu tells his parents, “Every runner has one perfect run. This is Tyson’s run.” Indeed it is.
Tyson’s run is a story about running the race—not just the marathon at the center of the story, but the race of life. Despite public praise and success for Bobby’s coaching, behind closed doors the Hollerman family’s private race has a been a difficult one. But Tyson’s determination to run the Standbridge City Marathon cannot be squelched, and his courage ultimately inspires many around him along the way—especially his father.
It’s impossible not to root for Tyson. But I’d argue that Ellie is this story’s quiet hero. She’s devoted her life to her special-needs son, teaching, encouraging and helping him as he’s grown. She’s endured a difficult marriage to a man who’s been largely absent. And even when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and at risk for having another child with autism, she declares that she’ll fight for that child, just as she’s fought for Tyson.
All in all, the story arc of Tyson’s Run reminded me a lot of many of the Kendrick Brothers’ movies (albeit with a tad more content), especially Facing the Giants and Overcomer. Tyson’s Run isn’t quite as polished as those films, but fans of the Kendrick Brothers will likely enjoy this inspirational story, too.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.