NORMAL – As Eric “Hoovey” Elliott stands next to the poster for the movie about him – the one currently in the outside display case of the Normal Theater – life and art visibly merge as one.
Instead of art imitating life, echoing it might be the better description.
That's because the movie, also called “Hoovey,” is the latest offering from EchoLight Studios, the faith-based Dallas movie company behind the 2011 sleeper, “Soul Surfer,” starring Oscar-winner Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid.
It's also from the same director, Sean McNamara, who loves stories, he says, in which his art can shape something from true life in a meaningful, inspiring and dramatically sound way.
"I want to make the kind of movie that drove me as a young kid, whether it was watching 'Rocky' or 'Rudy' ... watching someone overcoming great odds and doing well," says McNamara by phone from Los Angeles, where he has a second true-life movie opening this month, "Spare Parts," starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Marisa Tomei and George Lopez in the story of a rag-tag Hispanic robotics club that wins a championship competition.
For him, and all those involved, there is no more meaningful or inspiring story around at the moment than Hoovey's ... now the subject of “Hoovey” the movie, receiving its Midwest debut in a sold-out premiere Saturday (it will be followed by a week's run, through Feb. 6, and possibly beyond that).
The tall young man in the black-rim glasses standing on the sidewalk is reflected by the strikingly similar visage of his near-double: actor Cody (“Hannah Montana”) Linley, peering out from the poster, same glasses, same boyish countenance.
Surrounding him on the poster, and on the sidewalk, are his dad Jeff (“Rules of Engagement's” Patrick Warburton in the movie), mom Ruth (“NCIS's” Lauren Holly) and sister Jennifer (Disney star Alyson Stoner).
Further blurring the lines of art and life: all the Elliotts appear as extras in the climactic game sequence, "watching themselves," in effect.
Hoovey acquired his unusual nickname – the one he still prefers be used – via a memorable childhood encounter with a Hoover vacuum.
Now, on the cusp of 30 and employed by Country Financial in Bloomington, he can reflect with a calm reasoning on the events of the past 16 years and see the far-reaching designs of a higher power.
“From the start, we've all really had a strong feeling that God had a plan,” he says. “We saw so many miracles in what happened, we felt it was all happening for a reason. It's been exciting waiting for just the moment we can relate the way it all happened.”
The story begins during a winter blizzard on the night of Jan. 3, 1999, when the 13-year-old Hoovey collapsed while shoveling snow in the driveway of the Elliotts' rural Shirley home, suffering from double vision.
Jeff's attempts to get his son to what was then BroMenn Regional Medical Center in Normal were hindered when the truck became stuck in a snowdrift.
Father and son prayed, then gave it another shove. As the truck made it out of the drift, Ruth Elliott -- watching from the house -- said she saw them receiving some added help, from angels.
At the hospital, a neurosurgeon happened to walk by and saw Hoovey's MRI scans: a brain tumor the size of an orange was the diagnosis; a successful surgery was the outcome; a grueling recovery was in store.
A mere month later, the Elliotts were smacked with another life-threatening crisis: Hoovey's sister Jennifer was diagnosed with bacterial spinal meningitis. Like her brother, she survived, but faced a long recovery, having to re-learn how to read.
The ensuing medical bills wreaked havoc on the family's finances.
That's just the beginning of a saga that continued through Hoovey's basketball years at Olympia High School in Stanford, during which he had a serious head injury, forcing yet another battle back involving re-learning skills like walking, reading and speaking.
It climaxes during the first basketball game of his college years, when Hoovey hits two three-point shots in a row.
The first account occurred a decade ago, when his dad, Jeff Elliott, then a Normal firefighter, committed it to a book, “Rebounding From Death's Door,” which, five years later (2009), ended up in the hands of a movie producer (no longer connected with the film).
Jeff, who receives an executive producer credit on the resulting film, realized that a book is one thing and a tightly budgeted two-hour movie shot on a 20-day schedule is quite another.
That reality accounts for “Hoovey” the movie exercising some artistic narrative license for the sake of compact storytelling and staying within the given budget, including omitting Jennifer's own medical crisis, which would have sent the story careening in two directions.
“Because this happened in eighth grade all the way through college, we couldn't afford two different actors to portray Hoovey, as well as (stage) a junior high game, high school game and college game,” says Elliott.
So the games were dovetailed into one representative contest “to symbolize what took place in several events and created our own game, that is, the last-second shot symbolized the last second shot in college.”
In addition, noted African American actors like Brandon Smith (as a teammate) and Charles ("Night Court") Robinson (as the coach) were added to the mix, even though Olympia High School's team was all-white at the time.
“The black and white players and coaches symbolized the diversity at the college level,” says Jeff. “Hitting his head on the ground in the game symbolized the concussion he had in high school. The movie states based on a true story, but there were things such as this that were compromised for lack of funds.”
In other exercising of artistic license, the film, though set in McLean County (Normal and OHS included), was shot in Texas, close to EchoLight's home base.
Playing the Elliotts' rural Shirley home is the same Waxahachie farmhouse that starred as Sally Field's homestead in 1984's Oscar-winning "Places in the Heart," which, for an added Bloomington-Normal connection, co-starred ISU theater alum John Malkovich.
Though filmed in 82-degree heat, a mix of computer effects and traditional practical effects (wind machines, artificial snow) evoke the January 1999 blizzard in convincing detail.
"The background was a green wheat field which, in effect, became a giant 'green screen' for the computer effects," notes McNamara, who credits his deep TV background working for the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon with his logistical expertise at shooting a polished feature in 20 days.
Native Texan Cody Linley, who at 25 is just a few years the real Hoovey's junior, calls the challenge of playing a real-life person who was there for the filming "a blast ... I mean getting to play a real-life person is really cool, and getting to meet Hoovey before we actually started filming."
The two bonded over late-night talk-fests "and I learned a lot about his life philosophy ... that we have a lot in common in terms of family, sports and faith."
In particular, Linley and his family had undergone a traumatic personal tragedy of their own two years prior to the filming. "Going through that was a big life change for me, and it definitely brought our family together ... we became closer and grew stronger, and made me want to live my life in a more full way and become more serious about my career."
"Hoovey" and the Elliott family's kindred life experience was just what he needed to help get through a tough time, says Linley.
Adds the real Hoovey, now married (to Laura) and the father of a 5-year-old son (Caden) and 3-year-old daughter (Chloe): "I never wake up and take another day for granted ... I look at what happened as a positive thing that has shown me how strong we can be ... how far I can push myself ... and proven to us all that this is part of God's plan — his will being done."