Yesterday a friend invited me to the new Christian movie I Can Only Imagine. (He even paid for my ticket because he’s generous and I’m cheap!)
The film tells the story of Bart Millard, how he grew up in an abusive home and went on to co-found the band MercyMe and then write the mega-hit song “I can only imagine,” a tribute to his deceased father which envisions meeting Jesus in heaven.
If you go to Rotten Tomatoes you will find that critics generally dislike the film (a 58% rating). But it’s worth noting that this is far from a terrible RT score (A Wrinkle in Time has a significantly worse 40% rating while the new film 7 days in Entebbe has a dismal 22%).
Moreover, the audiences enjoy it (96% liked it). So if you like Christian movies, and if you like the song “I can only imagine” (a song which, I confess, I have never liked), and if you are a MercyMe fan (I admit that I only know the one song), then you too will probably like this film.
While I found the film mediocre (more on that anon), I wasn’t bored. The casting was generally good: J. Michael Finley, the lead actor who played Bart had the look and some of the charm of Seth Rogen; Dennis Quaid did a fine job as Bart’s drunk father; and the actress Nicole DuPort did a great job channeling Amy Grant.
Nonetheless, my enjoyment was hampered by period and chronology errors, clichés, and my own cynicism toward Christian movies.
Period and Chronology Errors
First, the movie has several irritating period errors. It opens in late autumn 1985 with Bart as a young boy. He acquires a cassette of U2’s The Joshua Tree and he begins listening to it. At least one of the songs is even played in the film. In other words, the album plays a significant role. The only problem is that it wasn’t released until March 1987. I know that and I’m not even a U2 fan.
That isn’t the only 1985 gaffe. In another scene, Bart passes the local movie theater and it lists two films currently showing: Goonies and Jaws 3-D. But Goonies came out in June of 1985: presumably it doesn’t take five months for new films to show in rural Texas. Even worse, Jaws 3-D played in the theaters two years earlier in 1983.
My next set of examples for period errors deal with the time of year. Still in late autumn, Bart’s mom decides to send him to a one-week church camp. But there’s no explanation as to why a one-week church camp is being run around mid-late November. What one-week church camp runs around the time of Thanksgiving?!
Obviously, it would make way more sense to have the camp occur during the summer. So why don’t the filmmakers do that? One possible explanation is that the production budget limited them to filming the Texas scenes all in around November. This is seemingly confirmed in a later scene when Bart graduates high school and then immediately moves away. While most high school graduations occur in late May-late June, when Bart leaves town right after graduation it is still late autumn. (Not surprisingly, when Bart returns to town years later it is once again in late autumn.)
I Can Only Imagine is rife with clichés. Let’s start with the above-mentioned scene of Bart leaving town after graduation. Bart rides off on a motorbike while his girlfriend stands forlornly by. The only bigger cliché would be if he had got on a Greyhound bus. Years later, when Bart is out east touring with MercyMe, he suddenly decides that he needs to return home. The next scene shows him riding that same motorbike home. But where did it come from? It certainly wasn’t being stored on their tour bus.
For the next couple clichés we can return to that strange camp in November 1985. At one point, young Bart bumps into a girl and she drops her journal as a result. So you know that this is the girl that Bart will eventually date, break up with, and then reunite with before the film is over. Film critic Roger Ebert called this cliché the “meet cute”.
Soon afterward, young Bart and his future girlfriend/wife are talking on a bridge at night at that same summer camp when fireworks inexplicably begin erupting over their heads. Why fireworks at a camp in mid-November? Presumably, because a plot borne by clichés requires fireworks.
Years later as MercyMe is struggling to build an audience, there is the obligatory scene of record executives telling the band they will never make it. And Bart decides he needs to return home to rediscover his roots and unlock his true artistic potential. This cliché is found in everything from Rocky returning to the mean streets of Philadelphia to Lightning McQueen in Radiator Springs.
Then there is the scene of the father being diagnosed with cancer but keeping it secret from his son. And when Bart discovers his father’s illness, this leads to a reconciliation of relationship and the joint father-son bonding that comes as they together restore an old vehicle in the barn. (Yes, really!)
The most significant clichés are reserved for the pivotal scene after Bart has written “I can only imagine” and Amy Grant is about to perform it as Bart watches from the audience. As the music begins, Amy finds that she just can’t sing the song. The audience looks perplexed and begins to murmur. Then suddenly Amy realizes that only Bart can sing “I can only imagine” and so she invites him up on stage for an impromptu career-defining performance.
(Incidentally, Bart just published an accompanying memoir which recounts this pivotal night differently. In actuality, Amy sang the first verse and then Bart sang the second verse as planned.)
After Bart performs the song, the audience dissolves and Bart sees one person — his deceased father — standing in the audience giving a slow clap. This vision then dissolves into a manic eruption of applause from the original audience. The scene is capped by Bart spotting the girlfriend he hasn’t seen in years in the audience. (How did she know about this concert? How did she get from Texas to Nashville?) Bart then rushes out to embrace his ex-girlfriend and proclaim his true love like Rocky embracing Adrian.
I said that I had three main problems with I Can Only Imagine: period and chronology errors, clichés, and my own cynicism. Having explained the first two, I trust it would now be redundant to bother explaining the third.
However, lest you think I’m the grinch who stole Christian movies, I will say that I left the theater glad I watched the film and impressed by the life of Bart Millard and the extraordinary success of his song. (However, I would not have chosen to end the film by relaying how Bart had the honor of speaking at President Donald Trump’s first national prayer breakfast. Talk about ending on a sour note!)
But the fact remains that while this film is a serviceable entertainment diversion, it remains a mediocre film. That contrast was made significantly more vivid last night after I had the serendipitous experience of discovering the 2017 film Columbus on Netflix. With excellent performances by John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus is set in the archaeological mecca of Columbus, Indiana, and it beautifully weaves the story of architecture into a narrative of pain, loss, friendship, and the journey to adulthood. Columbus reminded me of a mashup between Before Sunrise, Paterson, and Ladybird (three more great films).
What if Christian audiences were no longer satisfied with cliches and in-your-face didacticism? What if they demanded challenging stories and gorgeous cinematography? What if they truly valued ambiguous and complex scripts and true-to-life characters?
I can only imagine.