Lionsgate (and Roadside Attractions) and directors Jon and Andrew Erwin present the newest Christian religious drama film with the movie I Can Only Imagine, based on the true story of Bart Millard (the lead singer of the Christian music group MercyMe). Does this feature find its religious stride or does its Christian overtones fail to bring this cinematic tale to light?
Synopsis: The inspiring and unknown true story behind MercyMe’s beloved, chart topping song that brings ultimate hope to so many is a gripping reminder of the power of true forgiveness. (IMDB)
Starring: J. Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid, and Madeline Carroll
Writers: Jon Erwin, Alex Cramer, and Brent McCorkle
Directors: Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin
Rating: PG (Canada/United States)
Running Time: 110mins
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While there are some problems here and there that hold the film back, I Can Only Imagine is still a moving and theatrical strong Christian based film, thanks to its overall direction, heartfelt story, and several strong performances. In short…. it’s definitely one of the better “faith-based” movies out there.
I Can Only Imagine is directed by the Erwin Brothers (Andrew and Jon), whose previous directorial works include Mom’s Night Out and Woodlawn. With Woodlawn, being based on a true-life story of religion against racism, Andrew and Jon Erwin tackled another similar narrative. Trading in gridiron for music, the Erwin Brothers find their stride in detailing the chronicles of Bart Millard’s (Finley) life from boy to man, culminating a moving and powerful ending with a performance of the song “I Can Only Imagine”.
The journey to that point is where the movie spends its time, growing up with his abusive father Arthur (Quaid) and running off to in search for something, finding a call to music and singing. Naturally, the most poignant piece that the Erwin Brothers make of this movie is relationship between Bart and Arthur, finding themselves initially at odds and then coming together through faith, belief, and reconciliation. This thematic message, while based in Christian beliefs, certainly does speak volumes not only of the film’s narrative, but to real life for some people. Whenever the film focuses on either Bart or Arthur, bringing together touching and inspirational story of a “father / son” relationship that, through anger, abuse, and resentment, can find faith and forgiveness within that same relationship. For some, that’s miracle waiting to happen.
Coinciding with that, it was quite interesting to see how Bart’s journey came full-circle, finding his calling to music in forming MercyMe and how they became a multi-platinum recording artists. Additionally, the film’s script, penned by Jon Erwin, Alex Cramer, and Brent McCorkle, doesn’t feel too corny or sappy. Recent Christian movies, for the most part, are usually a tad corny and syrupy, which can often have an opposite effect. Of course, this movie has religious overtures but it never becomes too preachy or gets bogged down by poorly written dialogue or Christianity related cheesiness.
Moving beyond the film’s story, I Can Only Imagine’s technical presentation is solid. From production design work by Joseph T. Garrity to costume designs by Anna Redmon, the film’s overall presentation qualities are favorably sold, especially when you consider the fact that I Can Only Imagine was entirely shot in and around Oklahoma state and only had a production budget of only seven million dollars. The film’s editing by Andrew Erwin and Brent McCorkle and the film’s cinematography by Kristopher Kimlin are impressive with a few “interesting” and “creative” camera angle works and tight editing in layering sequences together. The film’s score by Brent McCorkle (wow…. McCorkle is certainly a “jack of all trades” throughout the film production) is also pretty good, with just the right amount of background music that tugs at the heartstrings throughout the film.
As one could suspect, the film’s overall narrative and premise can be a bit off-putting to some. The film will mostly appeal to those of the Christian faith. That’s not to say that the movie is necessarily bad. Additionally, while the story being told in the movie is indeed moving and palpable, the construction and formation of how it all plays out in the movie is fairly predictable. It’s definitely a sincere and touching feature, but not original. While the performance of “I Can Only Imagine” was great, it takes a while to get there because of the film’s story boarding setup. Some things could also have been expanded upon at certain points in the film, especially a few character building moments.
The cast in I Can Only Imagine is a mixture of mostly unknown actors / actresses with a few familiar faces here and there. Perhaps one of the biggest standouts of the entire feature are Finely and Quaid as Bart and Arthur. Finley, making his theatrical debut, does an exceptional job as Bart, who plays both the teenage / adult version of the character. He seems to have a charismatic charm about him, giving Bart that same quality, making him likable and magnetic when he’s in front of the camera. Additionally, Finley shows off his acting ability, showcasing his talents in some of the film’s more lighthearted comedic moments as well as the deeper dramatic weighty ones. Plus, he can do his own singing. Whatever the overall outcome of this movie is, Finley is solid as Bart and here’s to hoping that this role opens more doors to this aspiring actor in Hollywood.
As a side-note, young actor Brody Rose is solid as the younger version of Bart. Opposite Finely’s Bart is Quad who is brilliant as Bart’s abusive father Arthur. A character like this can be a bit tricky to pull off, portraying the character one way and then doing a 180. Fortunately, Quad is up to the task and does it masterfully. Naturally, Quad gets the mean-spirted / abusive fatherly figure down perfect, but also shows depth and empathy for his character of Arthur later on in the film. The on-screen chemistry between Quad and Finley stands out and feel genuine, making for some of the best dramatic scenes in the movie when they’re paired together.
Behind those two was country singer star Trace Adkins as MercyMe’s manager Scott Brickwell. Adkins’s natural low baritone voice has always had a commanding presence and this was still the case here. Behind him was Madeline Carroll as Bart’s high school crush sweetheart Shannon. While Carroll’s acting is good in playing the part of Shannon favorably, her character in the movie is weak, acting as the conflicted love interest for Bart. Ultimately, she’s just window dressing for the front and back end of the feature, which is disappointing as her character could’ve been more developed. Carroll’s Shannon is the weakest character in the film.
While the film does have a few problems along the way, the overall finished product of the movie is solid, with the Erwin Brothers crafting a feature film that is well-made, heartfelt, and moving, thanks to the film’s inspirational true story and the movie’s strong leads (Finley and Quad). Though there are some on the nose moments with its religious overtones, it never gets sappy or cheesy. Thus, this movie is worth a recommendation for fans of Christian movies and a solid rent for causal moviegoers.
4.0 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)
If interested, check out my movie blog @ Jason’s Movie Blog for my reviews of current movies.