Reviewing Christian movies is hard.
As a rule, these films are among the most well-meaning on any film calendar. They are films concerned not only with entertaining and inspiring but also with the fate of every moviegoers’ soul. No matter which side of the religious divide you fall on, you’ve got to admit: There’s something incredibly noble about that.
What makes reviewing Christian movies difficult is that while they’re often great sermons, they’re not always great movies. Basics like acting, cinematography and music often aren’t on par with their mainstream competition. And since film critics can’t base a review solely on a film’s noble intentions, these films often don’t end up on our good sides.
Which is to say that “I Still Believe,” the latest Christian film from Lionsgate and directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, is actually pretty good. Here is a Christian film that actually looks, sounds and feels like a real film – compellingly acted by screen veterans and nicely scored by a mainstream film composer with competent direction and cinematography. It is not a revolution in faith-based filmmaking by any means, but it is certainly an evolution – both for the industry and the Erwin brothers themselves.
“I Still Believe”, much like previous Erwin brothers production “I Can Only Imagine,” is a music biopic focusing on a Contemporary Christian Music artist familiar to the faithful but likely alien to those out of the loop. This time around, that artist is Jeremy Camp (played by KJ Apa of TV’s “Riverdale”).
While plenty of Camp tunes fill the two-hour runtime, you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting a “Star is Born”-esque origin story for the artist. The music really plays second fiddle to the story of Jeremy and his first wife Melissa (Britt Robertson) and her struggle with cancer.
So, yes, this is a faith-based “Fault in our Stars” or “Walk to Remember” or whatever your favorite romantic movie with a cancer subplot is. It certainly doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it does ask some interesting questions: Why does a supposedly loving God allow people to suffer? What good can possibly come from such terrible suffering? And how are we supposed to maintain faith in light of incredible pain?
The film’s answers to these questions will likely be as unsatisfying to the unbeliever as they are resonant to the faithful, I think. But even if the central message doesn’t resonate with you, there are things to appreciate about “I Still Believe”.
From day one, the Erwins have always been a step or two ahead of faith-based competition like the Kendrick brothers, with heightened production values and familiar (if not A-list) actors like Sean Astin, Patricia Heaton, Jon Voight and Dennis Quaid filling the roles. “I Still Believe” has arguably their best cast yet, and the professionalism of Apa and Robertson give the central relationship considerable charm.
The supporting cast is equally strong, and I really can’t express how nice it is to see Gary Sinise in his first on-screen film role in 16 years. The role of Camp’s dad is a bit thinly scripted, but Sinise elevates it as only an old pro can.
Five films in, the Erwins have clearly realized that hiring talented people is the key to making a strong movie. It’s also nice to see that they brought in a big-time composer (Jon Favreau’s regular collaborator John Debney) to do the score.
The Erwins themselves have clearly grown more confident in their filmmaking skills. There are some skillful, even beautiful, shots in places, and the script that Jon Erwin cowrote with Jon Gunn and Madeline Carroll is narratively efficient with few wasted moments. The film isn’t quite art, but it comes close at times, which is more than many mainstream films can say.
I imagine “I Still Believe” (rated PG for thematic material) will be a four-star film for many and a zero-starrer for others. I’m inclined to split the difference and then give the Erwins a little bit extra to recognize how much they have grown as filmmakers and how much they continue to grow with each project.
As the old quote attributed to Abe Lincoln goes, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” But even if the message doesn’t resonate with you, I imagine there will be just enough artistry, heart and charming performances to see you through to the end too.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.