Books & Culture

A review of “I Still Believe” (Co-directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, Rated PG, 115 minutes)

‘I Still Believe’ and the Maturing of Christian Film

It’s a high-water mark and a bid for the mainstream from a faith-based film industry that has produced uneven product in its several decades coming of age.

IStill Believe,” the new film by directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, represents a high point of the Christian film industry. Faith-based films have been hugely successful in recent years, even if they haven’t attained the aesthetic excellence of more secular films. With the beautifully shot, smartly edited, and wonderfully acted “I Still Believe,” that has changed. “I Still Believe” is not a masterpiece, but it is a very good film that can compete with mainstream Hollywood.

It’s 1999, and musician Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) leaves home in Indiana for a Christian college in California. At school Jeremy meets Melissa (Britt Robertson). They fall in love, and Jeremy intends to propose, but Melissa is unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. Defying his parents and the culture at large, Jeremy and Melissa marry.

Jeremy willingly walks into a situation that is going to end badly—one from which most young people would run. Melissa is interested in astronomy, and she compares herself to a dying star whose brilliant transformation will provide the cosmic dust for the creation of even more abundant life. She accepts her end as part of a larger plan.

The story is based on the real-life romance between Christian singer Jeremy Camp and Melissa Henning, a story told in Camp’s book I Still Believe. The film is one of the first movies produced by the Kingdom Story Company, a production company specializing in Christian films that are distributed through Lionsgate. The Erwin brothers are central players in the company; Jon Erwin compared Kingdom to a “Christian Pixar” or “Christian Marvel.”

Andrew Erwin last month explained the goal: “Our focus is still firmly rooted within the church, but it’s focused out . . . And so our goal is to reach out beyond the church walls to engage a generation that’s walking away from the church—as an introduction to Christianity.”

“I Still Believe” represents something of a reversal of the old theme of secular versus religious movies and, in fact, is better than most recent Marvel movies.

For decades secular audiences considered Christian movies like “Left Behind” and “God’s Not Dead” as bromides, a cheesy celluloid form of confirmation bias for Bible Belt believers. In these films the protagonist is challenged with a crisis, but because God is all-powerful and in charge, the main thing to do is hunker down, pray, and endure things until deliverance—or accept the tragic outcome as His will. For secularists, this supposedly infantile outlook sits in contrast to the grim but adult realism of more mainstream cinema, with the struggling anti-heroes who seemed to more accurately reflect the ambiguous lives of people in the audience. Films like “Chinatown,” “Lady Bird,” “Parasite,” “Moonlight” and even “The Bad News Bears” reflect an adult world of compromise, violence, and disappointment with only intermittent or questionable redemption. It’s why “Goodfellas” is considered a masterpiece and the Christian feel-good film “The Ultimate Gift” is not.

In recent years, however, it is mainstream Hollywood that has become more and more fantastical, as Christian films have become more realistic. Superhero franchises have taken over Hollywood—movies like “The Avengers” that recycle the same plot over and over again. A threat to the galaxy is coming, and a band of flawed but lovable heroes assembles to take it on.

“Joker,” 2019’s most lucrative and highly praised film (it was nominated for 11 Oscars and won two), dramatizes the sad life of a clown whose life circles a drain of abuse and neglect until the only solution is a purgative eruption of violence. Praised for its realism, “Joker” is heavily indebted to Martin Scorsese’s films “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Unlike “Joker,” however, those films had flashes of humor and even tenderness that balanced out the mayhem. “Joker” opens with a mugging and ends with a murderous riot, with nothing but more misery in between. Life certainly has its problems, but it is rarely so unremittingly bleak as “Joker” suggests.

“I Still Believe” is a much more accurate, and even adult, reflection of real life. What is it like for a person who is faced with an unbearable tragedy but who is determined not only to walk through it without completely surrendering to resentment, but to accept that suffering ultimately might have meaning? Of course, this being a faith-based film, Jeremy will accept Melissa’s death as part of God’s will. But “I Still Believe” doesn’t avoid the pain, rage, and doubts that come—and linger—with such a tragedy.

In one of the best scenes, Jeremy talks with his dad, Tom (Gary Sinise), about the “why” of it all. Sinise, a Hollywood veteran, offers a wonderfully nuanced exploration of the mystery of how self-sacrifice and life’s disappointments paradoxically can enrich us. “I had a lot of plans that didn’t work out,” Tom tells his son, “yet I stand here feeling like a very rich man.”

Sinise doesn’t deliver with blankly born-again optimism. He has real regret, he’s often tired, and he second-guesses how the whole divine-plan thing works. Yet the kids he wasn’t sure he wanted—including one who is developmentally disabled—have filled him up. To paraphrase Richard John Neuhaus, Tom has reached a faithful simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity.

After many films and several hits, the Erwin brothers are now expert filmmakers. Their previous films include “October Baby” (2011), a Christian pro-life drama, “Moms’ Night Out” (2014), and sports drama “Woodlawn” (2015). Their music biopic “I Can Only Imagine” was the most successful independent film of 2018. It made $86 million in worldwide box office against a production budget of $7 million. In “I Still Believe,” cinematography, acting, direction, editing, and music all work flawlessly and even with subtlety—something that is not always the case in Christian films. It’s a high-water mark and a bid for the mainstream from a faith-based film industry that has produced uneven product in its several decades coming of age.