Posted on September 30, 2014 at 11:06 amB+
|Lowest Recommended Age:||Middle School|
|Profanity:||Some mild language|
|Alcohol/ Drugs:||Drinking and partying|
|Diversity Issues:||Diverse characters|
|Date Released to Theaters:||September 26, 2014|
Will Bakke has followed his two thought-provoking documentaries on faith with a remarkably smart, funny, brave, and heartfelt first feature film that explores religion and values without ever falling into the easy conventions of many faith-based films. Bakke has a sharp eye but a warm heart and a refreshing honesty that allows him to let us laugh at some of the silliness and hypocrisy he has observed but is always respectful of those who find meaning in the way they engage with God. He is a sharp observer of the craft of filmmaking as well, and the story structure and camera and editing work here show that he is ready for the big leagues. I am looking forward to what he does next.
In his last film, a documentary called “Beware of Christians,” Bakke told the story of his journey with four friends, all from devout Christian families, as they traveled through ten European cities to expand their understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. That experience clearly informs this fictional story of four college fraternity brothers. When one of them discovers that his scholarship has run out with one more tuition payment still due, he persuades his friends to establish a fake Christian charity so they can keep the money. Each of them has a different perspective. Sam (Alex Russell, soon to be seen in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”), is the slick, dimpled operator who thinks this is just the ticket to smooth his path to law school. Pierce (Miles Fisher) is the selfish rich kid who does not want his father to know he is in debt. Baker (Max Adler of “Glee” and “Switched at Birth”) is the party animal who is up for whatever’s going on. And Tyler (Sinqua Walls of “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”) is a nice guy who goes along because they promise he will not have to speak in front of a group and they promise that some of the money will actually go to charity.
Sam is a charismatic speaker and the audience wants to believe. Not only do they raise money quickly for their fake charity (cutely dubbed “Get Wells Soon”), but they attract the attention of a promoter named Ken (Christopher McDonald), who wants to book them on a nationwide tour for Christian audiences. Also on the tour are a singer named Gabriel (“Happy Endings'” Zachary Knighton, with just the right touch of oily smugness) and the tour manager (and Gabriel’s girlfriend) Callie (Johanna Braddy). The guys have to up their game to appear to be more authentic. They don’t just use highlighters and post-its to mark Bible passages, they baptize their Bibles in swimming pool water to give them that thoroughly-thumbed look. In one of the movie’s highlights, Sam explains to the others how to use certain words and poses (like “The Shawshank”) to communicate piety and get more money from believers, and even how to swear just enough but not too much. Can they immerse themselves in the world of faith — and the evidence of true need — without being affected by it, especially with the example of at least one believer who demonstrates true grace?
Bakke and his co-screenwriter Michael B. Allen bring a lot of specificity to these scenes, and a sensitivity that shows he is laughing with the Christians (especially when it comes to Christian entertainment), not at them. They understand that their open-hearted generosity can be unthinking but is almost always kindly meant. And they understand that being a believer does not inoculate anyone from human failings, especially pride. They also understand that true faith requires the full engagement of the spirit. And they respect their characters and the audience enough to make it clear that the answers we value most are never easy.
Parents should know that this film has some drinking and partying and some criminal and unethical behavior.
Family discussion: Which character best fits your idea of what it is to have faith? What should Ken have done when he found out what the boys were doing? What will Sam do next?
If you like this, try: “Beware of Christians” and films like “Elmer Gantry,” “Jesus Camp,” “Marjoe,” “Blue Like Jazz,” and “Leap of Faith”