Netflix’s foray into Christian cinema could easily be billed as Sunday School Musical

By: Steve Pulaski

By my estimation, no three industries took bigger Ls during the pandemic than music, hospitality, and Christian cinema, which has been deafeningly silent since I Still Believe (briefly) hit theaters in March last year. Pure Flix, Affirm Films, and Sherwood Pictures (the Kendrick brothers’ studio) reserved any and all projects for a later date. Cue Netflix acquiring Monarch Media’s A Week Away in effort to capture the undernourished audience.

A Week Away should’ve been called Sunday School Musical as it feels like an amalgam of High School Musical and Camp Rock. Even the film’s lead, Kevin Quinn, looks like Zac Efron to a certain degree. Quinn plays Will Hawkins, an orphaned teen who, in the opening minutes, is fleeing a police officer on foot, guitar in hand. Once he’s apprehended, we learn he’s a repeat offender with a rap sheet including stealing a cop car and putting his high school up for sale on Craigslist. In effort to avoid sending him to juvenile detention, his foster home sends him to a Christian youth summer camp (I’m not one to squawk “privilege,” but holy crap).

Will arrives at Camp Aweegaway (get it?) and quickly makes friends with George (Jahbril Cook), the nerdy son of his foster mother (Sherry Shepherd), both of whom African-American, as the film tries to absolve itself of any problematic discourse there. It doesn’t take any time at all for Will to be smitten with Avery (Bailee Madison), the cute, peppy daughter of the camp’s director (David Koechner, who continues to show he evidently doesn’t turn down any role). Meanwhile, George is crushing on Avery’s friend Presley (Kat Conner Sterling), but the two are so socially awkward they can’t muster any courtship. The kids are all split into three different groups and tasked to compete in an array of competitions. Little conflict occurs and the only discernible villain here is a teen named Sean (Iain Tucker), whose biggest problem is his competitive edge. There’s always one “tryhard,” if high school has taught us anything.

Speaking of high school, I remember every year, there was a retreat called “Operation Snowball.” Google tells me it’s exclusive to my home-state of Illinois. It was a weekend long getaway where students would venture off to a camp, preach the gospel of being “straight-edge,” and do competitive group-activities similar to that in A Week Away. I never attended. However, the week after it occurred, you couldn’t walk the halls without hearing people sing its praises. I coyly thought of it as a cult because everyone would talk about how “amazing” the experience was, but rarely did I ever get a straight answer as to “why” it was so life-altering. At least the kids at Camp Aweegaway had God on their sides.

It’s tough to come down on A Week Away that hard given it’s an aggressively happy movie, sometimes contagiously so. The issue is how damn safe it plays. The beats are familiar from the jump. Seeing how quickly Will adapts to the group without reservation immediately undercuts his “bad boy” image. Moreover, the aforementioned characters are less individuals and more archetypes of John Hughes films (who gets name-dropped a few times seeing as George’s favorite film is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) that have had the life Xeroxed out of them. The excessive beautifying of the camp itself just further divorces it from any kind of real world aesthetic.

The musical numbers are well-choreographed, but the lyrics are platitude-laden on top of being interchangeable. Such broad lyrics as, “Feel the love / Soak it in / This is where you belong, this is where it begins” and “There’s nothing better / we’re feeling alright / Dancing to the beat of the time of our lives” are annoyingly vapid. At one point, the group harmonizes “God is awesome,” to give you an even greater idea of the corniness.

Probably the funniest lyrics, however, come in “Big House,” which screams to invite a group into “my Father’s house.” Get a load of this chorus:

“It’s a big, big house
With lots and lots of room
A big, big table
With lots and lots of food
A big, big yard
Where we can play football
A big, big house
It’s my Father’s house”

Quite bold of the respective writers to assume Heaven is about food and football and not showing a commitment to the Lord, as I’ve been informed by devout Christians in the past. The earworm effect it might produce nearly disguises the awful lyricism.

The pity of A Week Away is its frustrating lack of ambition. It strives for squeaky clean and gleeful as it brushes off any incorporation of reality. It’s geared to confirm to its target demographic they are following the right path in life, leaving their misconceptions unchallenged — consistently the largest flaw in most works of contemporary Christian cinema. The actors are all smiles, the music is momentarily invigorating, and the camaraderie amongst various people is something you exclusively see at camps like this. Now back to the real world.

NOTE: A Week Away is now available to stream on Netflix.

Grade: D+

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