The first of this years Christian fare
Do You Believe? kicks off a year that, judging from the amount of trailers Pure Flix Entertainment attached to its showings of Do You Believe?, will feature a number of independent Christian films, much like last year. Do You Believe? comes out the same weekend last year’s God’s Not Dead was released and took box office analysts and the entire film community by surprise with its enormous opening in less than 1,000 screens in the United States. This shows little doubt that Pure Flix Entertainment is anxious to try and reinvigorate the buzz that film managed to snag. Unlike most Christian films, God’s Not Dead wasn’t burdened by an amateurish production and the kind of cheap, poor moralizing that a great deal of contemporary films like to emphasize, but it actually found some semblance of substance as its characters debated the existence of God.
One deeply immersed with the world of film, specifically this peculiar but oh-so-fascinating subsector, needs to approach this film with caution because had God’s Not Dead been the monstrous hit that it was, this film would’ve likely either not been made or made with a lot less care and attention (and likely not a wide theatrical release, even on the low-end). The quality, as with all of these films, is entirely a gamble, which is part of the laundry list of reasons I like to see these films; it’s like your local multiplex is having a potluck and you have a chance at either having steak or chicken noodle soup bathed in flavorless broth. Continuing with that analogy, Do You Believe? is like chicken breast that’s noticeably overdone.
The film is an anthology, following twelve or so characters that are all confronted with life’s tribulations and hardships, with the film focusing on how they handle such tests and how they lean on other characters in order to get by. These individuals are a struggling single mother (Mira Sorvino) with a young, optimistic daughter (Makenzie Moss), who has to find a different place to sleep every night, an older gentleman (Brian Bosworth), crippled by an increasingly worsening sickness, who helps take in the mother and daughter, an atheist doctor (Sean Astin), who is sick and tired of hearing God and Jesus get the credit for the healing and care he provides, and his humanist wife (Andrea Logan White), a pregnant teen (Madison Pettis), who has run away from home, a local pastor (Ted McGinley), two petty gangsters (Senyo Amoaku and Arthur Cartwright), an older couple (Lee Majors and Cybill Shepherd) who have recently lost their only daughter, a paramedic (Liam Matthews), who is now faced with a lawsuit from the doctor’s wife because he spent the final minutes of a dying man’s life asking him if he knew Jesus, his struggling wife (Valerie Domínguez), and her PTSD-stricken, ex-Marine brother (Joseph Julian Soria). The central idea looming over all these individuals is the question of whether or not they believe, how will they turn their belief, if any, into an action, and how they will express their belief through others (spoiler: usually through the exchange of little wooden crosses).
To begin with, the writers and directors of anthologies immediately deserve some praise for undertaking such an enormous task, and director Johnathan M. Gunn and writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon need be hailed for giving each character their time of day on screen. While most of the characters struggle to be given life beyond their own stereotype, convention, or surface explanation of their backstory (how did the mother and daughter come to live on the streets? What was the past of the man who takes them in? What makes the doctor condemn religion so much? What happened to the daughter of the older couple?), there is at least time invested in each of the characters, and I’m willing to bet each of them get about the same amount of screentime. Gunn, Konzelman, and Solomon may’ve been hard-pressed to make each character in the film a fully fleshed-out person, but their end result is far greater than it could’ve been.
Not only is this because they give about equal time to these characters, but they also go the extra mile to recognize certain issues and facts of life that many religious films overlook or simplify. Including gangsters, single mothers, and the fact that the Christian gospel has become a controversial concept in recent years. This makes Do You Believe? a film that transcends the annoying bubble many of these Christian films get trapped inside. Konzelman and Solomon break those boundaries down and include those ideas, and to a degree that doesn’t show them as cartoonish, but moderately realistic.
It’s when Konzelman and Solomon begin to take exaggerated, emotionally-manipulative routes to get their message across to the audience that Do You Believe? becomes a weaker, less impressive film. Consider the ending, without giving spoilers, which is a circus of a shootout, a huge traffic pileup, a birth, a proclaimed-miracle, and a near-drowning. It’s bound to be one of the most explosive and cluttered movie endings of the year, and one of the most unbelievable, especially for a film that was doing so-so in the realism department before this happened. It’s a screenwriter’s opportunity when inflicting such a cacophony of powerful emotional material to trick people that what they saw was a series of impacting events that make up life, when anyone who sees films on a frequent basis will see these scenarios for what they are – emotionally manipulative and contrived.
Having said that, Do You Believe? is still better than Kendrick brothers’ affairs like Facing the Giants and Fireproof, and light years more capable and accomplished than such travesties as Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas and Last Ounce of Courage. Its central idea is one that’s, however, made for the kind of sentimentality and cloying hope and optimism shown in the film that, personally, makes me cringe and forgoes all ideas of achieving some conception of true-to-life instances. Yet the film can be given credit for how it balances a variety of characters and how it goes about profiling them in a way that’s not as dehumanizing and as shallow as you think, but also not as deep as you want. This is the “Crash” of Christian films, and, remarkably speaking, that Oscar winner and this potential low-key hit are operating on more-or-less the same playing field and quality level.