I Can Only Imagine (2018) Review

THE UNTOLD STORY

BEHIND THE BELOVED SONG


 

With dozens of films genre being released each year, a typical one that gets overlooked by the more popular ones (action, drama, comedy, animation, etc.) is the subgenre category of religious movie. These films (sometimes called “faith-based” features) usually center around the struggles and ideas of a person (or groups) identity of a religious faith, which is, more or less, has a profound event or obstacle to overcome. While not entirely, the most commonplace religious type movies focus on the religion of Christianity, sometimes venturing back into the past in cinematic retelling classic biblical tales, including famed epic films like Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (the original 1959 version) to some more modern endeavors from Hollywood like Risen and The Young Messiah. Other Christian “faith” films finds a more contemporary setting to tell its story, with some being “based on a true-life account” like the movies Unconditional, Heaven is Real, and Miracles from Heaven, while others might find inspiration from literary novels like The Shack, Unbroken and Same Kind of Different as Me. Regardless, whether finding inspiration from true life, references from the bible, or originality, these movies usually speaks on a person’s faith and the inner struggle he or she has within or one society’s views, spreading a message of belief and the understand of one’s belief. Now, 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?

J Michael Finley plays Bart Millard in 'I Can Only Imagine'

THE STORY


Growing up, Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) had youthful dreams and found comfort within the power of music. However, he grew up in a broken home, finding his father Arthur (Dennis Quad), an abusive individual, to be a monster as his parents would regularly fight and Bart would get beating. After his mother called it quits and leaves, Arthur’s anger turned wards his son, while Bart, trying to please his father, pursed a career in football. Everything was on the up and up (for the most part), with Bart becoming a high school football player with his childhood sweetheart Shannon (Madeline Carroll) by his side to keep comfort. Unfortunately, due to an unexpected injury, sidelined Bart from playing high school football, finding more failure within his father’s eyes. Out of this, Bart began to find a passion for singing in high school plays, displaying a strong quality in vocal performances and talent for the stage. When events suddenly escalate between Bart and Arthur, Bart decides to leave, leaving his hometown (including Shannon) in trying to pursue a career in music. Over time, Bart finds himself in MercyMe (a band that plays Christian music), finding wisdom in mentor-ish figure in Scott Brickell (Trace Adkins) in learning the ways of becoming a rising star in the current music industry. While the enjoyment of playing gigs is good, Bart soon learns that the life on the road is hard. When faced with a pivotal decision at a crossroads in his career, Bart finally accepts what he must do, with him having to go back to hometown and to reconcile with the person he came to hate the most: his father.

No longer a novelty, the faith-based film business is trying new ways to attract audiences

THE GOOD / THE BAD

While I am a devout Christian (not a crazy zealot or anything like that) for my bases of religion and my outlook beliefs in life, I’m not a huge fan of the “faith-based” feature films. That’s not to say that they’re bad or that I find them deplorable to the other more popular movie genres out there, but sometimes they can a bit preachy and corny / honky in their religious overtones and overall dramatic direction. Personally, I like the more biblical tales that Hollywood as put over, with Cecil B. Demile’s The Ten Commandments and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur; both of have proven to stand the test of time within filmmaking. Of course, Hollywood’s recent trend of put out more “remakes” movies puts an overcast on those biblical epics with 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings and 2016’s Ben-Hur; both of which failed to capture a sense of cinematic integrity and had a messy religious outlook in its zeal aspect. Of late, however, Hollywood as retreated more into contemporary pieces, finding narratives that are, more or less, set in a more “modern” day and age to their Christian-faithful based features. As I mentioned above, some have found success in their literary forms (being based on a book and adapted to the big screen), but most derive their inspiration from true life accounts, translating into something that’s meant to strike a chord (with moviegoers) due to it’s “based on a true story” aspect and nuances. Again, some are good (as I liked Unbroken and The Shack), while others kind of become a bit too preachy and let the religious overtures hamper the film, making them less-than desirable to mainstream audiences or even members of their own faiths. Thus, these religious-esque films can sometimes be problematic in their final presentation for both it’s viewers and in the film itself; sometimes making the movie feel like a TV channel movie rather than a theatrical feature film.

Naturally, this comes back around to my review for the movie I Can Only Imagine, the newest addition to Christian / religion-based film genre. To be quite honest, this movie went noticed to me for quite some as I really didn’t see much “newsfeed” for the film during my daily time on the internet. So, when I saw the film’s trailers (and I did seem the plenty in almost every movie I went to go see in my weekly movie outing) I was a bit curious to see the movie. To be even more honest, I really didn’t know much about the musical group MercyMe. Yes, I did know that they were a contemporary Christian band / group (and popular one at that), but I could name any one of their songs, including the song “I Can Only Imagine”. Thus, this further added to my “move curiosity” to see this movie, which was being toted as the “untold story” behind the song and about leader MercyMe singer Bart Millard inspiration for the song. So, what did I think of the movie. Well, I kind of liked it. 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 and centered around a true-life story of religion against racism, Andrew and Jon Erwin tackled another faithful “based on a true story” narrative that surely does speak volumes within its context. Trading in gridiron for music, the Erwin Brothers find their stride in detailing the chronicles of Bart’s life from boy to man, culminating a moving and powerful ending. Naturally, that particular scene ends with the song “I Can Only Imagine” and it’s definitely great to hear (sung by J. Michael Finley). However, the journey getting to that point is where the movie spends its time in unfolding Bart’s story, capturing the abusive time period growing up with his dad 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 his dad (Arthur), finding themselves at odds and coming together again (later on) through faith, belief, and reconciliation. This thematic message, while based in Christian beliefs, certainly does speak volumes not only in the film’s narrative, but into real life, with many individuals caught in the struggle of an abusive relationship (be it parental guardian or in spouse / partner) and the movie captures that and brings into the forefront of I Can Only Imagine’s narrative. Whenever the film focuses on either Bart or Arthur (or both in the same scene) is where the Erwin Brothers, 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, I also found it quite interesting to see how his (Bart’s) journey came full-circle, finding his calling to music in forming the band group MercyMe and how they became a multi-platinum recording group. Additionally, the film’s script, which was penned by Jon Erwin as well as Alex Cramer, and Brent McCorkle, doesn’t feel too corny or sappy, which is a good thing. Recent Christian “faithful” movies, for the most part, are usually a tad corny and syrupy with trying to relate drama or dialogue within characters, which can hinder the feature greatly (I.e. anything that actor Kirk Cameron does for a film or the God’s Not Dead movies). Of course, I Can Only Imagine does have that Christianity touch with religion overtures, but never becomes too preachy and never gets bogged down within either poorly written dialogue or Christianity cheesiness. All in all, the Erwin’s Brother contribution and direction for I Can Only Imagine definitely helps in making the film enjoyable than most, bringing Bart Millard’s emotional story to life on the silver screen.

Moving beyond the film’s story, I Can Only Imagine’s technical presentation (as a movie) is solid. Yes, I can tell you right now that the movie won’t win any awards in these categories, but the film is handled well with enough love and care to make the film experience enjoyable. 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. To me, the film’s editing, which was done by Andrew Erwin and Brent McCorkle, and the film’s cinematography, which was done by Kristopher Kimlin, are impressive with a few “interesting” and “creative” camera angle works and tight editing of layering sequences together. The film’s score, which was composed 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.

Of course, the film does have its drawback, which prevent it from reaching critical acclaim status in the cinematic world of movies. As one could suspect, the film’s overall narrative and premise can be a bit “offputting” to some. With the movie telling the tale of Bart, his relationship with his father, and the creation of MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” (as well as the religious Christianity overtones), the film’s appeal might boil down to those of the Christian faith, making I Can Only Imagine’s viewing experience limited to masses of casual moviegoers and viewers. That’s not to say that the movie is bad or anything like that, but you know what I mean. 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 (i.e. not much in the way of surprises). Also, while did love the big climatic ending point of “I Can Only Imagine” being sung in the movie, it takes a while to get to that point, which is caused by the film’s storyboarding setup. I also felt some things could’ve been expanded upon at certain points in the film, especially a few character building moments (a few of them I’ll mention below).

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 actors J. Michael Finely and actor Dennis Quaid, both of which play Bart Millard and Arthur Millard (Bart’s father) respectfully. Surprisingly, Finley, who makes his theatrical debut with this film, 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 and gives Bart that same type of quality, making him likeable to us (the viewers) and magnetic when he’s in front of the camera. Additionally, Finley handles himself in his acting ability, showcasing his talents in some of the film’s more lighthearted comedic moments as well as the deeper dramatic weighty ones, which are the core fundamental ones of the feature. Plus, he can do his own singing and sounds incredible…. wow! Not bad, not bad at all. Like I said above, his rendition of the song “I Can Only Imagine” is moving and powerful. Not bad, not bad at all. Whatever the overall outcome of this movie is, Finley is solid in the role 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 (Christmas on the Bayou and Gifted) does solid job in playing the younger version of Bart. Opposite Finley’s Bart is Quad, known for his roles in Frequency, In Good Company, and Far from Heaven, who is brilliant as Bart’s abusive (almost antagonist caught up in tragedy) father Arthur Millard. A character like this can be a bit tricky to pull off (for actors) as they must portray the character one way and then do a complete 180 in character persona, casting he / she in a whole new light. 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 the more depth and empathy for his character of Arthur later on in the film. It’s also great that 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 would definitely have to be country singer star Trace Adkins, who starred in films like Traded and The Lincoln Lawyer, as MercyMe’s manager Scott Brickwell. Adkins’s natural low baritone voice has always had a commanding presence and does in I Can Only Imagine, finding his scenes to be great whenever the camera is focused on him (be it talking or just screen presence). He’s character isn’t much beyond the ordinary role as a music manager, but Adkins makes it work. Plus, he’s given a few parts for comedic bits, which are amusing to see Adkins perform them. Behind him would have to actress Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote and Flipped) as Bart’s high school crush sweetheart Shannon. While Carroll’s acting is good and she plays the part of Shannon favorable, her character in the movie is weak, acting as the conflicted lover interest for Bart. Her character gets a strong representation at the beginning of the movie, but slowly becomes less important. Ultimately, she’s just window dressing for the front and back end of the feature, which disappointing as there’s could been more development into her character. Sadly, Carroll’s Shannon is the weakest character in the film. Also, much like Rose’s portrayal of the younger Bart, young actress Taegen Burns (Dumplin’ and Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland) does a favor job as the young version of Shannon.

As I mentioned above, the movie also shows how MercyMe came together, with other members of the group along for the part of Bart’s journey in the film. They are portrayed by actor Cole Marcus (Opposite Day) as percussionist Robby Schaffer, actor Mark Furze (Home and Away and Underbelly) as bassist Nathan Conchran, actor Jason Burkey (The Walking Dead and The Originals) as guitarist Michael Scheuchzer. While these characters are important in the forming of MercyMe (I can’t remember if they showed or mentioned MercyMe’s other guitarist Barry Graul in the movie), they’re brought into focus beyond a few scenes. Sure, they’re there (in the background), but aren’t given much in the way of character depth…just idle chit chat nuances amongst themselves and with Bart. Still, the performances given by them are good, but I would’ve liked to seeing them a bit more than just “stock” characters. Rounding out the rest of the cast are smaller supporting characters, including actress Priscila Shirer (War Room and Be Still) as Bart’s Glee Club music teacher Mrs. Fincher, actress Cloris Leachman (The Croods and Spanglish) as Bart’s grandmother Memaw, and actress Tanya Clarke (A Beautiful Mind and Banshee) as Bart’s mother Adele, and actress Nicole DuPort (The Last Tycoon and My Name is Burns) as portraying singer / songwriter musician Amy Grant.

I Can Only Imagine (Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

FINAL THOUGHTS


Discover the untold story behind MercyMe’s most beloved song that inspired millions in the movie I Can Only Imagine. Directors Andrew and Jon Erwin’s newest film tells the story of MercyMe’s lead singer Bart Millard story of dealing with an abusive father and learning to find forgiveness through religion and the power of music. While the film does have a few problems along the way, the overall finished product of the movie is solid, with the Erwin Brother’s crafting a feature film that well-made, heartfelt, and moving, which is made by the film’s true story and thanks the movie’s two strong central leads (Finley and Quad). Personally, I liked it (a bit more than what I was expecting it to be). Though there are some moments that are a bit “on the nose” with its religious aspect, it never gets sappy or cheesy. As a whole, the movie was thematically good as well as touching feature between a father and son complexed relationship. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is both “recommended” (for fans of MercyMe and / or Christian “faith-based” movie lovers and a solid (and favorable) “rent It” for those causal moviegoers out there. In the end, story of Bart Millard and how he created MercyMe’s hit song “I Can Only Imagine” is quite an inspirational one that can translate beyond the film’s limitations, which is why I Can Only Imagine is definitely one of the better “Christian movies” out there of late.

4.0 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)

 

Released On: March 16th, 2018
Reviewed On: March 18th, 2018

I Can Only Imagine is 110 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic elements including some violence

3 comments

  • I’m glad to see some faith based movies getting attention. They have a good moral lesson and some of the more recents ones can reach past Christians and appeal to a larger audience. My problem is many still, as you said, seem preachy. They’d be better served just having the characters be who they are and show their faith without constantly repeating how faithful they are being. As my dad told me once when I was young, don’t go around thumping your bible at people, just live your life in a way that you should as a Christian and they’ll figure it out on their own. Of course I’ve been a hellion most of my life but that’s beside the point haha.

  • Haha….i agree with you. Like i said, most of these films are either to cheesy / corny (with their religious aspect) and ultimately become to preachy within the narrative context. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised how much i like this movie and is definitely one of the better films (within this subgenre) to come out in recent years.

  • Your thoughts with regard to in your face Christian movies mirrors my own.

    Thanks for a thorough review.

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