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I Can Only Imagine (2018)
Directed by: The Erwin Brothers
Starring: J Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid, Madelin Carroll
Rated: PG for Thematic Elements Including Some Violence
Running Time: 1 h 50 m
TMM Score: 3.5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Message, Family Friendly
WEAKNESSES: Acting, Characters
The true story behind MercyMe’s chart topping single, I Can Only Imagine. This film focuses primarily around lead singer Bart Millard’s relationship with his abusive father.
I grew up watching Christian cinema like the Veggie Tales Movies, McGee and Me, Adventures in Odyssey, and, one of my favorites, “Left Behind” (2000). As I matured as a person and a filmgoer, I realized more and more that these films that I was raised on, just because they perpetuated the same morals and worldview I had, were not inherently good films. They were filled with hokey over-the-top acting, and almost all of their messages could be boiled down to one topic: the world is a sinful place, and as Christians, we need to be on our guard. Now, this message in it of itself is not a bad message. It’s a good message to preach, but unfortunately that’s how the films came off: preachy. This film, while still a little didactic and sure of itself, is two steps ahead of the films I grew up watching. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but it’s better than most of the Christian films I’ve seen, and that right there gives me a lot of hope for Christian cinema.
(SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW)
The film opens with Bart Millard being interviewed after MercyMe’s first single, I Can Only Imagine, hits number one on the Christian radio charts. The interviewer asks how he wrote the song, and Bart responds that it just sort of came to him. “The words took about ten minutes,” he says, “the music about ten minutes after that, and then it was done.” “No,” the interviewer responds, “you’ve been writing this song your whole life.” We flashback to a young Bart (Brody Rose, “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water”) and follow him through the highs and lows of his life: a summer camp, where he meets Shannon, the love of his life; his mom leaving; and we see a few implications that his father (Dennis Quaid, “Kin”) is abusive. As the story progresses, Bart gets into music and pulls away from his father. He joins a band, and tours with nominal success. He ends up returning home, where he finds out that his father is dying; but the silver lining is that his father has found God, and he truly is a changed man.
There are plenty of really good things that happen in this film. First of all, no one is a perfect character; everyone struggles with something. The film’s pacing is pretty on point; it’s not too long, not too dry. I think both of those things say a lot about the writing of this film; it’s taken two steps back from the microphone, and it’s not screaming in our face about how Christians live better lives than others. It portrays Christians as people, which is the best way to portray us: we’re all human, we all struggle; to say otherwise makes any point you’re trying to make moot. The real reason that people will come to see this movie is for it’s message, which is ‘God can change even the worst of people.’ That’s a great message, but sadly, it only sort of shines through here. This film could’ve been really good, and as it is, it’s still a few rungs of the ladder above average Christian cinema, but it struggles in a few aspects, and as a result, the film were left with is fine. Not good, not bad, but fine.
My biggest complaint about this film is that, while it has a really great message about God’s ability to change people’s hearts, we don’t really see much character change from anyone except Dennis Quaid. And the change that he does go through, since Bart is removed from him while it’s happening, is almost entirely off-screen, so it feels sudden and almost without reason. Bart’s father was, by his own words, ‘A monster.’ But we never really see the monster that he supposedly was. We hear his father yelling at his mother, but never see it. It’s implied that Bart’s father beat him, but we never see the beatings or the bruises. For a character to have an arc, they have to have high and low points, but if you take away from the low points, you’re also negating the change in the end. If the directors had chosen to show the abuse only slightly, I believe the impact in the end would’ve been so much more powerful. As it is, the change has to be explained through expositional dialogue; Dennis Quaid explains that he was proud of his son, and happy to listen to him on the radio. As he listens to the radio he hears preaching and slowly his heart is changed, and he realizes the error of his ways.
Another issue with this film is that the other characters in this film are relatively weak. I really want to know what the other members of MercyMe think of this film, because they are hardly ever onscreen, and when they are they don’t have lines: they are only props in the background of Bart’s story. The same thing with Shannon (Madeline Carroll, “God Bless the Broken Road”), who is Bart’s on-again-off-again girlfriend; she has no motivation for anything she does except to serve Bart. Her character is actually kind of insulting to females, because her whole purpose in this story is to wait around for Bart to make up his mind if he wants to be with her. Bart and his father are really the only characters in the movie, the rest of the people populating the screen barely even qualify as cardboard cutout imitations.
The worst bit about this film is the acting, and I say that with as much love as possible. The actors tried. They really did. Most of the time, the scenes were… watchable, but in some instances the acting was cringe worthy. I really don’t know how J. Michael Finley got this gig, because he couldn’t carry a scene in a bucket. It’s really rough. Some of the other actors are better, but watching Finley interact with them is so awkward that it’s almost painful. Amy Grant, who plays herself in this film, somehow finds a way to make herself feel alien; she’s super smiley and breathy, distractingly so. Trace Adkins was actually okay; I wont say he was good, but he was passable.
This film knows who its audience is, and it panders to them, but not as much as I’ve seen other Christian films do. As I said at the top of this review: this is a better Christian film than I’m used to seeing. That being said, this is not the pinnacle of Christian filmmaking. We can do better, and we should do better.
One of the production companies behind this feature is City On A Hill Productions, taking their name from Matthew 5:14, which says, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” As Christians, we should be a light unto the world; we need to show love to those that are sinful, those that we don’t agree with, and those that don’t share the same worldview as us. This film, though it’s better than some Christian films, still panders directly to its audience; it’s only an affirmation of our beliefs. If we want these films to be seen by nonbelievers (and be taken seriously), the filmmakers behind these movies need to be more coy with how they work in their messages. I think it’s great that Dennis Quaid came aboard this film because it shows that with an okay script you can attract big names, and bigger names draw bigger crowds. According to IMDb, “I Can Only Imagine” was the #3 film in America based on box office numbers, meaning Christian cinema has started to bleed in to secular media.
This film is a stepping-stone to better things. I’m glad that I was able to see it because it shows a huge leap forward in Christian cinema, but we can’t stop here.
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