Christian movies are ready to cross over. Fourteen years have passed since “The Passion of the Christ” became a national sensation, and while no one has managed to match the hysteria that greeted Mel Gibson’s New Testament snuff film, companies like Pure Flix and Mission Pictures International have cultivated a lucrative cottage industry of cinema for the Focus on the Family crowd. Over and over again, these religious offerings have surprised box office pundits and raked in blockbuster numbers, with everyone from Pat Robertson to Joel Osteen spreading the good word in an effort to close the gap between megachurches and multiplexes.
“Heaven Is for Real,” the inspirational story of a little boy who once died for a few minutes, gross $93 million in the United States. “Fireproof,” in which Kirk Cameron plays a porn-addicted fireman, earned $33 million off a $500,000 budget. “God’s Not Dead,” a 2014 Kevin Sorbo vehicle about the persecution of Christians on America’s college campuses, pulled down more than twice that. And yet, despite the fact that these are some of the most profitable movies this side of “Deep Throat,” they’re still only preaching to the choir. Pure Flix and their ilk can practically turn water into wine, but that hasn’t been enough to buy Hollywood’s respect. This is still fringe entertainment.
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“I Can Only Imagine” is hellbent on trying to change that. A blunt-force biopic about the author of the aughts’ most popular Christian rock song, the latest from evangelical brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin (whose previous credits include the anti-choice abortion drama “October Baby”) grossed $17 million when it opened last weekend, averaging more than $10,000 per screen and besting studio heavyweights like “A Wrinkle in Time.” For comparison, “Call Me by Your Name” barely earned as much in its entire run.
What sets “I Can Only Imagine” apart from the “value-based” movies whose trailers are attached to it (e.g. “God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness” and a vile-looking “spiritual” sequel to Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”) is that it’s not exclusively geared towards the Sunday-morning crowd. The film may not be catching fire on the coasts — if not for the holy spirit, this critic would have been the only soul at the Tuesday afternoon showing he attended in Manhattan — but it isn’t actively walling itself off from the big city “elites.”
Unlike its directors’ previous work, “I Can Only Imagine” plays its cards very close to the chest. There’s no trace of conservative politics, nor any straw man posturing against the so-called liberal agenda; Jesus is barely mentioned until the third act, his guiding light revealed to the hero with the gentle sting of a plot twist.
Add in a regrettable supporting turn from Dennis Quaid and a nationwide distribution deal from indie stalwarts Roadside Attractions (whose recent output includes “Manchester by the Sea” and “Lady Macbeth”), and it’s clear the Erwin brothers were hoping to make a biopic that boasted the same broad appeal of the song that inspired it. And why not? Christians might be the only ones who remember the words, but any American old enough to remember the early 2000s can probably still hum the tune.
Structured like a holy cover version of “Slumdog Millionaire,” “I Can Only Imagine” begins with an adult Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) sitting in a studio and reflecting on his masterpiece. “I wrote this song in about 10 minutes,” he sheepishly confesses to a woman off-screen. “You didn’t write this in 10 minutes,” she says, “it took a lifetime.” Buckle up, heathens!
For most of his youth, Bart Millard barely knew Jesus. Their love for one another is pre-ordained by an opening title card that informs us of Bart’s eventual success (providing the kind of information that most films reserve for the very end), but the Texan was understandably slow to hear the gospel. Whisking us back to 1985, the script reintroduces Bart as a chubby kid with an overactive imagination and an abusive father who seems to love plaid more than he does his own son.
Played by a stiff and scowling Quaid (imagine an enchanted scarecrow who came to life and robbed an L.L. Bean), Arthur Millard is a former college football star who communicates via cliches and violence. “Dreams don’t pay the bills!” he barks at Bart before smashing a plate over the back of his head. It’s hard to tell if Arthur is an alcoholic or if he’s just an asshole — either way, he doesn’t go to church.
Mercifully, Bart isn’t alone in this world. Bible camp becomes his first source of salvation. There, in a sepia-toned sequence that so brazenly violates traditional film language the Erwin brothers might as well be speaking in tongues, our young hero meets a little girl named Shannon who tells him they’re going to get married some day.
Cut to six years later, when the two are obviously high school sweethearts, even though Bart — as portrayed by the 29-year-old Finley — now looks like a bearded 35-year-old man. He breaks his ankles, discovers his singing voice, and lands a starring role in the school musical. His dad refuses to see it, which leads to an insane bit of editing in which Bart’s performance of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” is cross-cut with Arthur being stricken with cancer. No one thinks to ask what kind of cancer he’s got, but the official prognosis is that he’s only going to live until the start of the third act.
“I Can Only Imagine” hits its stride once Bart starts touring as the frontman of a local Christian rock band. Finley clearly never has been on camera before (his most notable credit is as Jean Valjean’s understudy in the Broadway production of “Les Miserables”), but his guileless inexperience becomes a blessing in disguise, as it’s the character’s only recognizable trait.
When it comes to the music, Finley can belt it out with the best of them, even if the overproduced soulfulness of his singing voice always makes it sound like he’s auditioning for “American Idol.” Maybe that’s why record company bigwigs keep echoing Arthur’s opinion that Bart isn’t good enough — the kid’s talent is undeniable, but when a pony-tailed Trace Adkins rolls up and says it’s missing something, you have no choice but to take him at his word. (Adkins’ performance, for which the country superstar channels a deep-fried David Morse, is an unabashed delight.)
What Bart is missing, of course, is Jesus. And if he wants to find Jesus, he’s going to have to forgive his dad (who, conveniently enough, finds Jesus first). After roughly 90 minutes of secular dramatic storytelling, the film’s swerve towards faith is desperate and inevitable, the Erwin brothers explicitly suggesting that the lyrics for “I Can Only Imagine” came from God Himself. At the same time, they seem keenly aware that non-believers might struggle with the idea that modern prophets spread their gospel on Top 40 radio (and get filthy rich in the process), and so they snap back to the basic facts of their inspirational true story, building to a climactic scene that celebrates the singular power of Christian rock by ending the movie with … a song by mainstream electro outfit M83. Jesus died for our synths.
The music cue is emblematic of a movie that wants to be some kind of benign Trojan horse for Christ; it’s not deceptive, it’s just couching its particular ideology in a more approachable form. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the Erwin brothers’ attempt to widen their audience only articulates why this lucrative new wave of faith-based filmmaking will never transcend its niche, no matter how big that niche becomes.
There’s a reason why all of these movies are so amateurishly made; why they all end with links to religious websites; why they all look like they were shot on an iPhone by a Walmart-brand Janusz Kaminski who lit each interior like the white light of heaven was streaming through every window. There’s a reason why the title card about the success of Bart Millard’s song comes at the beginning of this film, instead of at the end. Art can be affirmation, but affirmation cannot be art.
“I Can Only Imagine” is now playing in theaters.