I just returned from an advanced screening of the new movie the latest film from the Erwin Brothers, also known for the movies Woodlawn and October Baby (the latter of which I truly enjoyed). I went as much curious about the movie’s billing as basically the back-story that led to the writing of the group Mercy Me’s breakout hit and now top-selling Christian single of all-time by the same name, as I went to attempt to discern if it was a movie I could recommend in good conscience. This is the review that resulted.
I Can Only Imagine begins in a studio with an interview of some sort of Bart Millard
(played by J. Michael Finley in his screen debut)who is asked about the song I Can Only Imagine. He responds that it took all of about 10 minutes to write the lyrics and about the same to write the music. The interviewer then says that no – the song took a lifetime to write…
Finley does a really good job, not demonstrating the typical over-acting of an actor with a Broadway background – but actually giving a believable and heartfelt performance. Of special note – he really did sing in the film!
The interview mentioned above opens a scene in rural Texas and launches our storyline. One filled with drama, pain, and broken dreams, but also a story of redemption and forgiveness.
Normally, I am not terribly impressed when a movie presses the emotion side – and this gets particularly frustrating with many films marketed to evangelicals and billed as “Christian” – as these often drum up truckloads of emotion with a terribly formulaic “ask Jesus into your heart” easy-believism that actually cheapens what Christ accomplished on the cross.
Thankfully, the emotion in this film does not lead to a call to such a “prayer”, but instead is totally appropriate as it helps to tell the story. The gospel is implied, though not glaringly thrown into the mix. The film doesn’t have a “Courageous“-like bold challenge to a decision, yet at the same time is quite challenging – and does convict, resulting in some deep thoughts of our own relationships that need forgiveness and restoration.
There is a secondary storyline of a long-time (from childhood) love, yet even this is only a decoration on the bigger picture, that only serves to reinforce the underlying themes of the film
Of particular pleasure is learning the back-story of this song. It is a pleasure, yet simultaneously is the main need for a box of tissue!
I was a bit concerned when I saw Priscilla Shirer’s name in the opening credits, as she always sends up red caution flags for me – I’m not sure if it is her popular efforts to be a “pastor” to the masses, or her dangerous mystic/borderline heretical beliefs she sells to sold-out audiences (contemplative prayer being one of the most obvious, but also the related belief that God is still audibly, verbally, giving new revelation today), or maybe it is her proclivity to twist Scripture way out of shape to make it fit her own dangerous theology. But whatever the reason, my “shields” were up, but I took them down somewhat when I realized that her role in the move was a rather minor role, and not one that contributes any real theological material. She is simply a music teacher in a high school, and appears all of a couple of minutes.
One surprise for me, cast wise, was Dennis Quaid who plays Bart’s father.
Quaid actually nearly steals the show with what is probably one of his best acting performances of his lifetime.
If I did have to pick something out to complain about, it would be the tidal wave of materials for sale based on or tied to this film. It always concerns me when there is a ton of merchandise (and profit being sought by it) along with a movie that otherwise has positional to be a real life-changer for many. Some will complain that the gospel is not presented boldly enough, or clearly enough. If someone (or a church) thinks that using any film alone as an evangelism tool is sufficient, they are already approaching the call to make disciples the wrong way! Look at this movie first as an encouraging film, good entertainment, and a message of the need for restoration and forgiveness – and as a solid film that many outside of evangelical christianity likely would be interested in. Go to enjoy knowing the back-story to this popular song. Take a friend because they need to heard the same message – and maybe it will open the door to you filling in the rest of the details of the Gospel.
“The redemption story is great-if the Gospel could change that dude, the Gospel can change anybody!”
~Bart Millard, Mercy Me
If you are looking for a story of redemption and forgiveness – and already love the song I Can Only Imagine, then this movie would be one to add to your schedule. I am seriously thinking about organizing a group from church to go see it.
Here is a link to the trailer for the film: I Can Only Imagine
I Can Only Imagine opens March 16, 2018