The Erwin Brothers’ Christian romance aims for crossover appeal, but can’t quite rock its way into the free world.
How does one deal with grief? For many, the loss of a loved one can be devastating and lead them into depression and feelings of hopelessness. For others, the pain of loss can be used to create something beautiful and give others hope. Directing duo Jon and Andrew Erwin (I Can Only Imagine) use the story of popular Christian artist Jeremy Camp and the loss of his first wife, Melissa, as a way to inspire others who are dealing with grief in I Still Believe. The result is a movie that is often touching, but won’t do much for those outside of its target audience.
Unlike most musician biopics, which tend to showcase the artist’s entire life, I Still Believe focuses entirely on Jeremy’s relationship with Melissa. While there are multiple scenes of concerts and radio interviews, Jeremy’s musical career only features in the movie insofar as to facilitate the love story. Indeed, to call this a biopic is almost inaccurate. Although the film is biographical it’s more of an examination of love and faith than the story of Jeremy’s life.
Indeed, the first act of the film feels like your typical romantic drama. A wide-eyed Jeremy Camp (KJ Apa, Riverdale) manages to talk his way backstage for musician Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons, Roswell: New Mexico). While there, he spots Melissa (Britt Robertson, A Dog’s Purpose) in the crowd; it’s love at first sight.
While Melissa is immediately attracted to Jeremy, she is reluctant to date him due to Jean-Luc’s romantic feelings for her. The typical love triangle angst commences until intense stomach pains send Melissa to the hospital. It turns out she has stomach cancer that is fastly spreading to the rest of her body. This prognosis forces the two to realize that they truly love each other, and the rest of the film deals with the tribulations they face.
This focus on the main character’s relationship is the movie’s greatest strength. Apa and Robertson have great chemistry together, moving from an initial awkwardness to a comfortable intimacy with ease. It’s also moving to watch Jeremy willingly choose to be with Melissa after learning she has cancer and the loyalty he has for her. While I Still Believe has plenty of cinematically appropriate romantic moments, it understands that love isn’t just pretty feelings but a continuous action.
However, while Jeremy and Melissa’s commitment to each other is commendable, they’re too squeaky clean to mine any real drama from them. It feels like the Erwin Brothers were afraid to portray the Camps as flawed human beings. They are both kind, caring and compassionate at all times, with no real vices or imperfections. The only time they have any moral ambiguity is in the first act where they hide their relationship from Jean-Luc. Even then, it is portrayed as Melissa not wanting to hurt Jean-Luc’s feelings, and it’s clear that she is not in a romantic relationship with him.
Bland niceness also extends into the rest of the cast. As a romantic rival, Jean-Luc doesn’t do much. He’s just mad at them for a scene and then once Melissa gets sick he doesn’t bring it up again. Jeremy’s parents (played by Gary Sinise and Shania Twain) give some protest to Jeremy wanting to marry Melissa, but they quickly come around. Maybe these are accurate portrayals of these real people (or maybe Camp doesn’t want to do anything that could ruin his image). But no matter how compelling the story is, with characters this flat it’s hard for the filmmakers to get much drama out of it.
That isn’t to say that the Erwin Brothers don’t try. In two hours, we are treated to a love triangle, the trials of dealing with cancer, and Jeremy’s loss of Melissa and his crisis of faith. These are engaging concepts, but too much time is spent on the love triangle aspect, with Melissa’s battle with cancer mostly being told out in montages. Oddly enough, the testing of Jeremy’s faith — the ostensible lynchpin of the movie’s emotional core — is only given two fairly short scenes. Perhaps it was assumed that the audience knew Jeremy’s return to faith was a foregone conclusion.
It feels like the Erwin Brothers were afraid to portray the Camps as flawed human beings.
The Erwin brothers have stated that they hope the film will have crossover appeal, and it seems like Lionsgate agrees. Not only has the distributor doubled their theaters, but they’re planning to release it on IMAX. It’s not hard to see why: the Erwin brothers’ prior film, I Can Only Imagine, was a massive hit and was also a Christian Musician biopic. It’s clear that if this is also a hit then the Erwin brothers will be producing several more movies just like it.
Does the film have crossover appeal? Somewhat. Traditionally, Christian films almost exclusively catered to American Evangelicals in theology and politics. While I Still Believe is explicitly Christian, it won’t alienate Catholics or mainline Protestants. When characters talk about God, it is a god of love and the film avoids politics, culture war issues, or any theology that isn’t universal to all Christian Denominations. Given the Erwin Brothers’ track record, the film will be most popular with evangelicals, but it’s not hard to imagine an Episcopal youth group going to see this film on a Friday night.
But what about the nonreligious audience? That also depends. The story itself has mass appeal for romance fans, but explicit religious themes can be a turn-off, especially since Christian movies often portray atheists as the bad guys. I Still Believe avoids any negative characterization of atheists (mainly by not having any), but its final message will ring hollow if you don’t agree with the movie’s worldview. While this may make converts out of “seekers”, most agnostic/atheists or people of other faiths will probably be unmoved.
Whatever your faith, there is comfort in seeing how love can endure and even flourish in the face of tragedy. And while the bland characters and a mishandled story hindered my enjoyment of I Still Believe, seeing Melissa and Jeremy stick together made even this cynic a little misty-eyed. I think The Erwin Brothers will see that as a win.
I Still Believe talks a little bit about the original rock star, a righteous dude by the name of Jesus Christ, in theaters March 13th.