I Still Believe (2020) Review
HEARTFELT & SINCERE,
BUT TOO FAMILIAR & CHEESY
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, The Young Messiah, and Paul, Apostle of Christ. 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, Unbroken, I Can Only Imagine, Indivisible, and Miracles from Heaven, while others might find inspiration from literary novels / fictionalized narratives like The Shack, Overcomer, War Room, 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, after the success of 2018’s I Can Only Imagine, directors Andrew and Jon Erwin (the Erwin Brothers) and Lionsgate studios release the 2020 faith-based film / music biopic feature I Still Believe. Does the film walk a fine line between its religious aspects and cinematic entertainment or does the movie get entangled in its own faith-based preaching?
Its 1999 and Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) is a young and aspiring musician who would like nothing more than to honor his God through the power of music. Leaving his Indiana home for the warmer climate of California and a college education, Jeremy soon comes across one Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson), a fellow college student that he takes notices in the audience at a local concert. Falling for cupid’s arrow immediately, he introduces himself to her and quickly discovers that she is attracted to him too. However, Melissa holds back from forming a budding relationship as she fears it will create an awkward situation between Jeremy and their mutual friend, Jean-Luc (Nathan Parson), a fellow musician and who also has feeling for Melissa. Still, Jeremy is relentless in his pursuit of her until they eventually find themselves in a loving dating relationship. However, their youthful courtship with each other comes to a halt when life-threating news of Melissa having cancer takes center stage. The diagnosis does nothing to deter Jeremey’s love for her and the couple eventually marries shortly thereafter. Howsoever, they soon find themselves walking a fine line between a life together and suffering by her illness; with Jeremy questioning his faith in music, himself, and with God himself.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Sorry if this sounds a bit familiar pieces from my review of I Can Only Imagine, but it definitely says what I feel about these films. 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 its “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 its viewers and in the film itself; sometimes making the movie feel like a TV channel movie rather than a theatrical feature film.
This brings me around to talking about I Still Believe, a 2020 motion picture release of the Christian religious faith-based genre. As almost customary, Hollywood usually puts out two (maybe three) films of this variety movies within their yearly theatrical release lineup, with the releases usually being around spring time and / or fall respectfully. I didn’t hear much when this movie was first announced (probably got buried underneath all the popular movies news on the newsfeed). My first actual glimpse of the movie was when the film’s movie trailer was released, which looked somewhat interesting to me. Yes, it looked the movie was gonna be the typical “faith-based” vibe, but it was going to be directed by the Erwin Brothers, who directed I Can Only Imagine (a film that I did like). Plus, the trailer for I Still Believe premiered for quite some time, so I kept on seeing it a lot of time when I went to my local movie theater. You can kind of say that it was a bit “engrained in my brain”. Thus, I was a bit keen on seeing it. Fortunately, I was able to see it before the COVID-19 outbreak closed the movie theaters down (saw it during its opening night), but, due to work scheduling, I haven’t had the time to do my review for it…. until now. And what did I think of it? Well, it was pretty “meh”. While its heart is definitely in the right place and quite sincere, I Still Believe is a bit too preachy and unbalanced within its narrative execution and character developments. The religious message is clearly there, but takes too many detours and not focusing on certain aspects that weigh the feature’s presentation.
As mentioned, I Still Believe is directed by the Erwin Brothers (Andrew and Jon), whose previous directorial works include such films like Moms’ Night Out, Woodlawn, and I Can Only Imagine. Given their affinity attraction religious based Christian movies, the Erwin Brothers seem like a suitable choice in bringing Jeremy Camp’s story to a cinematic representation; approaching the material with a certain type of gentleness and sincerity to the proceedings. Much like I Can Only Imagine, the Erwin Brothers shape the feature around the life of a popular Christian singer; presenting his humble beginnings and all the trials and tribulations that he must face along the way, while musical songs / performance taking importance into account of the film’s narrative story progression. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t without its heavier moments, with the Erwin, who (again) are familiar with religious overtones themes in their endeavors, frame I Still Believe compelling messages of love, loss, and redemption, which (as always) are quite fundamental to watch and experience through tragedy. This even speaks to the film’s script, which was penned by Erwin brothers playing double duty on the project, that has plenty of heartfelt dramatic moments that will certainly tug on the heartstrings of some viewers out there as well as provide to be quite an engaging tale of going through tragedy and hardship and finding a redemption arc to get out of it. This is especially made abundantly clear when dealing with a fatal illness that’s similar to what Melissa undergoes in the film, which is quite universal and reflective in everyone’s world, with the Erwin Brothers painting the painful journey that Melissa takes along with Jeremy by her side, who must learn to cope with pain of a loved one. There is a “double edge” sword to the film’s script, but I’ll mention that below. Suffice to say, the movie settles quickly into the familiar pattern of a religious faith-based feature that, while not exactly polished or original, can be quite the “comfort food” to some; projecting a wholesome message of faith, hope, and love. Personally, I didn’t know of Jeremy Camp and the story of he and Melissa Henning, so it was quite a poignant journey that was invested unfolding throughout the film’s proceedings. As a side-note, the movie is a bit a “tear jerker”, so for those who prone to crying during these dramatic heartfelt movies….get your tissues out.
In terms of presentation, I Still Believe meets the industry standard of a religious faith-based motion pictures. Of course, theatrical endeavors like these don’t really have big budged production money to invest in the film’s creation. Thus, filmmakers have to spend their money wisely in bringing their cinematic tales to life on the silver screen. To that effect, the Erwin Brothers smartly utilized this knowledge in the movie’s creation; budgeting the various aspects of the background and genetic theatrical make-up that feel appropriate and genuine in the film’s narrative. So, all the various “behind the scenes” team / areas that I usually mention (i.e. production designs, set decorations, costumes, and cinematography, etc.) are all relatively good as I really don’t have much to complain (whether good or bad) about them. Again, they meet the industry standard for a faith-based movie. Additionally, the musical song parts are pretty good as well. As mentioned, I really didn’t know anything about Jeremy Camp, so I couldn’t say what songs of his were good, but the songs that are presented in the film were pretty decent enough to certain highlight points throughout the movie. Though they are somewhat short (assuming not the whole song is being played), but still effectively good and nice to listen to. Might have to check out a few of the real songs one day. Lastly, the film’s score, which was done by John Debney, fits perfect with this movie; projecting the right amount of heartfelt tenderness in some scenes and inspirational melodies of enlightenment in others.
Unfortunately, not all is found to be pure and religiously cinematic in the movie as I Still Believe gets weighed down with several major points of criticism and execution in the feature. How so? For starters, the movie feels a bit incomplete in Jeremy Camp’s journey. What’s presented works (somewhat), but it doesn’t hold up, especially because the Erwin Brothers have a difficult time in nailing down the right narrative path for the film to take. Of course, the thread of Jeremy and Melissa are the main central focus (and justly so), but pretty much everything else gets completely pushed aside, including Jeremy’s musical career rise to stardom and many of the various characters and their importance (more on that below). This also causes the film to have a certain pacing issues throughout the movie, with I Still Believe runtime of 116 minutes (one hour and fifty-six minutes) feeling longer than it should be, especially with how much narrative that the Erwin Brothers skip out on (i.e. several plot chunks / fragments are left unanswered or missing).
Additionally, even if a viewer doesn’t know of Jeremy Camp’s story, I Still Believe does, for better or worse, follow a fairly predictable path that’s quite customary for faith-based movie. Without even reading anything about the real lives of Jeremy and Melissa prior to seeing the feature, it’s quite clearly as to where the story is heading and what will ultimately play out (i.e. plot beats and theatrical narrative act progression). Basically, if you’ve seeing one or two Christian faith-based film, you’ll know what to expect from I Still Believe. Thus, the Erwin Brothers don’t really try to creatively do something different with the film…. instead they reinforce the idealisms of Christian and of faith in a formulaic narrative way that becomes quite conventional and almost a bit lazy. There is also the movie’s dialogue and script handling, which does become problematic in the movie’s execution, which is hampered by some wooden / forced dialogue at certain scenes (becoming very preachy and cheesy at times) as well as the feeling of the movie’s story being rather incomplete. There’s a stopping point where the Erwin Brothers settle on, but I felt that there could’ve more added, including more expansion on his music career and several other characters. Then there is the notion of the film being quite secular in its appeal, which is quite understandable, but relies too heavy on its religious thematic messages that can be a bit “off-putting” for some. It didn’t bother me as much, but after seeing several other faith-based movies prior to this (i.e. I Can Only Imagine, Overcomer, Indivisible, etc.), this particular movie doesn’t really rise to the challenge and falls prey to being rather generic and flat for most of its runtime. As you can imagine, I Still Believe, while certainly sincere and meaningful in its storytelling, struggles to find a happy balance in its narrative and execution presentation; proving to be difficult in conveying the whole “big picture” of its message and Jeremey Camp’s journey.
The cast in I Still Believe is a mixed bag. To me, none of the acting talents are relatively bad (some are better than others…. I admit), but their characterizations and / or involvement in the film’s story is problematic to say the least. Leading the film’s narrative are two protagonist characters of Jeremy Camp and Melissa Henning, who are played by the young talents of K.J. Apa and Britt Robertson respectfully. Of the two, Apa, known for his roles in Riverdale, The Last Summer, and The Hate U Give, is the better equipped in character development and performance as the young and aspiring musical talent of Jeremy Camp. From the get-go, Apa has a likeable charm / swagger to him, which make his portrayal of Jeremy immediately endearing from onset to conclusion. All the scenes he does are well-represented (be it character-based or dramatic) and certainly sells the journey that Jeremy undergoes in the movie. Plus, Apa can also sing, which does lend credence to many of the scene’s musical performance. For Robertson, known for her roles in Tomorrowland, Ask Me Anything, and The Space Between Us, she gets hampered by some of the film’s wooden / cheesy dialogue. True, Robertson’s performance is well-placed and well-mannered in projecting a sense of youthful and dewy-eyed admiration in Mellissa, especially since the hardships here character undergoes in the feature, but it’s hard to get passed the cringeworthy dialogue written for her. Thus, Robertson’s Melissa ends up being the weaker of the two. That being said, both Apa and Robertson do have good on-screen chemistry with each other, which certainly does sell the likeable / loving young relationship of Jeremy and Melissa.
In more supporting roles, seasoned talents like actor Gary Sinise (Forest Gump and Apollo 13) and musician singer Shania Twain play Jeremey’s parents, Tom and Terry Camp. While both Sinise and Twain are suitable for their roles as a sort of small town / Midwest couple vibe, their characters are little more than window dressing for the feature’s story. Their screen presence / star power lends weigh to the project, but that’s pretty much it; offering up a few nuggets to bolster a few particular scenes here and there, which is disappointing. Everyone else, including actor Nathan Parsons (General Hospital and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water) as musical talent and mutual friend to both Jeremy and Melissa, Jean-Luc Lajoie, young actor Reuben Dodd (The Bridge and Teachers) as Jeremy’s handicapped younger brother, Joshua Camp, and his other younger brother, Jared Camp (though I can’t find out who played him the movie), are relatively made up in smaller minor roles that, while acted fine, are reduced to little more than just underdeveloped caricatures in the film, which is a shame and disappointing.
The power of faith, love, and affinity for music take center stage in Jeremy Camp’s life story in the movie I Still Believe. Directors Andrew and Jon Erwin (the Erwin Brothers) examine the life and times of Jeremy Camp’s life story; pin-pointing his early life with his relationship Melissa Henning as they battle hardships and their enduring love for one another through difficult times. While the movie’s intent and thematic message of a person’s faith through trouble times is indeed palpable as well as the likeable musical performances, the film certainly struggles to find a cinematic footing in its execution, including a sluggish pace, fragmented pieces, predicable plot beats, too preachy / cheesy dialogue moments, over utilized religious overtones, and mismanagement of many of its secondary /supporting characters. To me, this movie was somewhere between okay and “meh”. It was definitely a Christian faith-based movie endeavor (from start to finish) and definitely had its moments, but it just failed to resonate with me; struggling to find a proper balance in its undertaking. Personally, despite the story, it could’ve been better. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is an “iffy choice” at best as some will like (nothing wrong with that), while others will not and dismiss it altogether. Whatever your stance on religious faith-based flicks, I Still Believe stands as more of a cautionary tale of sorts; demonstrating how a poignant and heartfelt story of real-life drama can be problematic when translating it to a cinematic endeavor. For me, I believe in Jeremy Camp’s story / message, but not so much the feature.
3.0 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice)
Released On: March 13th, 2020
Reviewed On: April 7th, 2020
I Still Believe is 116 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material