Editor’s note: This review was originally published for the theatrical release of “I Still Believe.” The film comes to VOD on Friday, March 27.
Hot off the breakthrough success of 2018’s “I Can Only Imagine,” Alabaman brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin are back to convert an even wider secular audience with another harmless and tin-eared Christian rock biopic that combines the melodrama of Douglas Sirk with the edginess of Bible camp. But while “I Still Believe” name-checks Jesus so often that he should probably get residuals for it, this heartrending true story about love, loss, and the universal struggle to make sense of our suffering is broad enough to resonate with anyone who’s ever had to search in the dark for their own measure of faith.
Or at least it might have been if the Erwin brothers weren’t so unwaveringly earnest with their sermonizing — so hellbent on finding God that they forgot to make any of their characters feel human. Sanitized to the point that it makes “A Walk to Remember” seem like “Salò” by comparison. Led by a “Riverdale” actor whose outspoken piety can’t offset the suspicion that he was body-snatched away from his sinful day job at the CW (the devil’s network), “I Still Believe” epitomizes the oppressive wholesomeness of recent “faith-based” cinema by preaching to the choir while refusing to offend the congregation. Its soul is open, its mind is blank, its flesh is numb (and always covered).
Dreadful and dangerous as more antagonistic fare like “God’s Not Dead,” “War Room,” and even the Erwin brothers’ own anti-abortion drama “October Baby” might be, at least those films had the courage to reckon with the messiness of this mortal coil. Jeremy and Melissa Camp’s story is one that anyone could appreciate, but it’s been turned into a movie that only Ned Flanders could believe.
Kiwi actor KJ Apa — Hot Archie himself — stars as a bright-eyed and #blessed teen musician whose faith in Jesus is only matched by his confidence in himself. Its September 1, 1999 when the film begins, and young Jeremy is just about to ditch Indiana for the sun-kissed sanctuary of California’s Calvary Chapel Bible College. The world is his oyster, but he isn’t leaving his idyllic home without regrets. This sweet, wooden Nilla wafer of a hunk can hardly bear to say goodbye to his sensitive father (Gary Sinise, playing against type), his invisible mother (Shania Twain, lending the movie some country bonafides and offering viewers a backdoor gateway drug to “I Heart Huckabees”), or his disabled younger brother (a sweet and affecting Reuben Dodd).
But that all feels like ancient history as soon as Jeremy gets to college. Arriving in California with nothing but a new guitar and the rhetorical question his dad gave to him along with it (“For you, music is a gift — what do you want to give to people?”), our boy isn’t at school for six hours before he lies his way backstage at the opening night concert and befriends the famous worship musician who’s come to shred for the enraptured crowd at his alma mater. Played by “Bunheads” graduate Nathan Dean, Jean-Luc is a perma-beanied French-Canadian smokeshow based on The Kry frontman Jean-Luc LaJoie, and his busy schedule as a rock star apparently doesn’t stop him from hanging around his old campus for months at a time so that he can creep on an undergraduate named Melissa (“Tomorrowland star Britt Robertson). Of course she’s the same manic pixie dream Christian who Jeremy falls in love with at first sight.
Kudos to the real LaJoie, who must have so believed in the message of this film that he allowed the Erwin brothers to invent a crush he never had, make him the most obtuse angle of history’s least horny love triangle, and force him to get cucked by a teenager who looks like he was born to answer the question “what would happen if Joel Osteen and Chad Michael Murray both stepped into one of those telepods from ‘The Fly?’” Anyway, Jeremy’s courtship of Melissa is the most engaging stretch of the movie, if only because it finds some blandly compelling tension in the space between devotion and desire.
Robertson works small miracles with the narrow role afforded to her, as she replaces the unknowable quirkiness that a secular romantic dramedy would use to define her character with an awestruck fascination with the divine. “God is so infinitely vast,” she marvels to Jeremy during their first date at a planetarium, “and he knows my name.” Viewers who don’t see the same degree of order when they look at the heavens can still latch on to the raw emotion of the scene; it’s a big universe out there, but that vastness only makes it all the more special when you find someone to love among the stars.
Melissa promised God that she wouldn’t get distracted this semester, but Robertson manages to sell the idea that a girl so reverent she writes Bible verses on the whiteboard outside her dorm room door would betray the sacred vow she made to her lord and savior just to hold hands with a more naïve and less successful version of the hot older rock star who’s been obsessed with her for years. God works in mysterious ways, and they only grow more confounding when Melissa — a ray of sunshine who spreads her light to everyone she meets — is diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. Jeremy’s first reaction to the grim news is to offer his hand in marriage and weather the coming storm with the love of his life, and the rest of the movie watches as they batten down the hatches and try to hold onto their faith.
Movies like this one tend to lump most of the God talk into the third act — saving it for when the story reaches a crisis that could only be explained through Christ — and “I Still Believe” is no exception. But if the Erwin brothers are treading some very familiar terrain (at least whenever they’re not zooming over it with the abundant drone shots they bought with their previous success), the impasse at the end of their latest film isn’t unique to Christians, and neither is the path that Jeremy follows out to the other side.
Despite being so unnaturally stiff and instructive that you almost start to suspect the Erwin brothers consider interesting visual compositions to be a vain sin against God, “I Still Believe” confronts the relationship between faith and suffering with appreciable sincerity. The solution Jeremy reaches in order to reconcile that dilemma may not add up for everyone, but his search for it is honest enough. Even if Apa lacks the depth to bring it alive, the movie around him is so eager to let the healing begin that the hurting never has time to take root.
While it’s hard to overstate how much even one off-color moment — even one dash of doubt or flash of human fallibility — would make the story’s ultimate grace feel less empty, the Erwin brothers aren’t interested in making art so much as they are in offering pay-per-view reaffirmation. The power of the Camps’ story is hard to deny, but it would almost be impossible to make it seem more hollow. Maybe if the Erwins depicted people with half the same detail with which they dote upon Jesus, “I Still Believe” wouldn’t feel so insufferably forced to those of us who don’t.
Lionsgate will release “I Still Believe” in theaters on Friday, March 13.