Monday, 19 March 2018

I Can Only Imagine (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Christian band MercyMe, lead by singer Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley), have scored a #1 hit with their song I Can Only Imagine. As Bart is interviewed and asked what went into writing the song, he recollects his troubled childhood under his aggressively abusive father (Dennis Quaid), his connection to his faith, and how the latter ended up helping him reconcile with the former.

Well, this film is already off to a decent start just by the casting: They actually got someone experienced with acting and singing to play the lead and that kind of flexible shows. Finley nails the stage presence needed for the live performance scenes, he works nicely with his character’s framing, and even though his visible age makes the earlier scenes of him in high school a bit awkward (something that even the film has to lampshade), you definitely feel the emotion that he’s bringing to the table. Same goes for Brody Rose as his younger self, who handles his more dramatic moments nicely. Madeline Carroll as the on-again-off-again love interest kind of fades into the background, whether the plot intended for her to do so or not, but credit where it’s due in that she still brings some realism to the proceedings through how she plays the role. I’ve sat through enough Christian cinema to appreciate when someone isn’t chewing on the scenery for a change.

Trace Adkins as the band manager fits into the story well enough, Cloris Leachman as Bart’s grandmother works as a healthy reminder that she can still pull through, despite being attached to less-than-ideal material of late (e.g. The Wedding Ringer, Scouts’ Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse), and Priscilla Shirer as Bart’s music teacher… oh dear. For those playing the home game, this is the same “actress” who played the female lead in War Room, which still ranks as one of the more egregious films I’ve covered on this blog, religious or otherwise. Considering both that background and her limited acting skill, it helps that she isn’t in the film that much… and the few moments we get aren’t anything to write home about. Then there’s Quaid, and honestly, this is the strongest performance he’s given in quite a while. He handles the more abusive aspects of his character well enough, but by the time it comes for the inevitable redemption to happen, he absolutely nails it. After the saccharine headache of A Dog’s Purpose from last year, this is a very welcome surprise.

So, this is a Christian film explicitly built on a single popular Christian song. Last time someone tried to do this, we got the unholy trinity that is the song, book and film of The Christmas Shoes, one of the most unintentionally heinous things out there. The inclusion of pop gospel hellion Amy Grant in the story doesn’t help that initial scepticism. Thankfully, I’m not going to have to rage out against a film’s bad soundtrack again because the music here is quite pleasant. It’s blatant worship music, so mileage may vary on how much an individual can stand of such things, but it still gets points for being on the decidedly less preachy side of things. It’s not a direct message put to music, at least in how it feels in the moment; instead, it feels authentic enough to be able to see why anyone at all would like it.

That’s a big thing to check for in films about music: Personal taste is one thing, but in the end, it only has to sell that someone else would buy it without it just being pandering. I know what religious pandering looks like (I’ve reviewed more than enough of it on this blog in the past) and this certainly isn’t it. It’s still aimed at a predominantly Christian audience, obviously, but not because it thinks that that audience will buy anything with the name Jesus in it; it treats the audience with some level of respect, which in turn earns mine.

Shame the same can’t be said for the music narrative, which ends up falling back on rather tired tropes of the up-and-coming musician. The performances themselves are still fine, but watching Bart and Mercy Me shuffling around backstage is far less engaging. The struggling artist is a tried-and-true cinematic cliché and this film doesn’t really do anything all that special with it to make it stand out. We get the concerts, the arguments, the clashes with record executives (in easily the most cringey moment of the film), all of which feel like they could have existed in just about any film. It lacks that personal story touch, which is rather surprising considering the idea of personal connection is what makes up not only the majority of this film’s tone but also its best moments.

I want to share a story with you. This would have happened around 2013, back when I was going to college. I was on my way home, listening to music on my iPod as always, and then a song came on that I hadn’t heard before (I always filled my iPod with new music to check out).

It was In Her Music Box by Atmosphere, a hip-hop song about a young girl who connects with her father over music… but also uses music to get away from the constant fighting that happens between her parents. I was walking down the hill to my house when the song reached its end and I was very heavily weeping as I walked. I felt a connection with that idea of using music to help cope with the problems of real life, as I have talked about before when I looked at the Eyedea documentary. I am not a religious person in real life, but in that moment, when I heard Sean ‘Slug’ Daley sing about this girl escaping into the sounds of her music box… well, I have no other way to describe it: It was a religious experience. It enriched my soul.

I bring this up because, much like a person’s faith, a person’s connection to music can be a very powerful force. Music is like any other form of artistic expression in that it speaks to a certain part of the artist who made it. Creating music is often a way for that artist to deal with aspects of their own reality, and it can just as powerful an effect on those who hear it. What makes this film work, and work brilliantly at that, is that it taps into the notion of personal connection. It doesn’t take time out to worry about what everyone else thinks or believes; it focuses on what Bart thinks, what Bart believes, what Bart wishes would happen.

Because of that connection to the personal, the scenes where the older Bart and his father talk about the father’s physically and verbally abusive history with him hit incredibly hard. It doesn’t act like the forgiveness of God is the only thing that matters, keeping in mind that humans aren’t quite as willing to forgive monsters as the Almighty appears to be. It also doesn’t act like what made his father a monster was solely due to him not being of the faithful; the closest we get to that is him saying that he “doesn’t belong” in church. It holds him responsible for his actions, sympathizes with how angry Bart is at him… but also highlights something that I’ve said myself in relation to moral absolution.

With enough commitment, intent, and just a little bit of luck, anyone can be forgiven for their sins. It’s just a matter of putting in the effort and actually understanding why you would need to be forgiven in the first place. This film, in the way it shows the father-son relationship, the genuine conflict involved and the remarkably grounded way that it is resolved, shows precisely why that is. It shows that forgiveness is possible, for those who are truly repentant, and that not only does such an arrangement take considerate effort, but it also never makes such forgiveness out to be a mandate. No one forces Bart’s hand in the matter, and he takes time with the decision. But in the end, while still admitting what his father did to him, he finds room in his heart to forgive him. Because, in his own words, if God can turn his father into a good man, He can do anything. Have to admit, even as a non-believer, that got me a bit teary-eyed by the end.

All in all… okay, over the course of this review, I managed to draw direct comparisons between this and some of the most loathsome Christian media of the last 20 years. And yet, even with all the precedent in the world, this is easily the best independent Christian film I’ve seen, let alone reviewed. The acting is solid, if not always memorable, the music can be a little grating at times but is certainly delivered with passion, and while the writing may not focus on the really engaging material as much as I would have liked, it more than makes up for that with just how powerful this can get. It echoes similar feels to last year’s The Glass Castle, only without the insane emotional whiplash and relative mental gymnastics required to get through it. This highlights a person’s faith and a person’s connection to art as powerful tools, ones that can mend great wounds and uplift those that need it. As someone who has long since championed how much good film, music and media in general can do for the human spirit, I definitely tip my hat to this effort.

1 comment:

  1. I just saw this movie and you've given a more than fair review here. I'm a Christian, but as a movie buff, I've often cringed at the products of the "Christian Movie" genre. Hoping to see good stories well told that are informed by a Christian worldview, too often I see what amount to filmed sermons that don't ring true and have limited appeal. This film surprised me greatly and did so even though I'd never heard of the song.