“The core story is so frothy and unbelievably trite”
Going against the grain of most mainstream and independent film critics, I actually kind of enjoyed and appreciated God’s Not Dead, a film that took its modest theatrical release of under 1,000 theaters and became a nationwide success. Despite its seriously questionable ending, I appreciated its willingness to actually debate the secular side rather than scold them or emptily portray them as incompetent, amoral beings with no capacity for human empathy whatsoever. Regardless of your views, its depiction of secular individuals is much more mature and realistic than the counterparts that share its ideological basis, and the film’s production and thesis both showcased a shocking level of competence independent Christian cinema hadn’t seen in a very long time.
God’s Not Dead 2, the inevitable sequel arriving two years after its predecessor and a year after Pure Flix Entertainment’s poorly performing followup Do You Believe?, winds up taking what could’ve spawned another equally compelling and fundamentally interesting film and makes it a droll courtroom drama/theological debate where the opposing side fails to show up. This horribly dry and thoroughly unexciting slog of a film is one of corny sermonizing punctuated only by bloated theatrics that are so unsubtle, they make the climax of A Few Good Men feel realistic and credible.
At the center of the madness is Melissa Joan Hart, playing Grace Wesley, a high school teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial High School. One day, Miss Wesley begins to notice that her student Brooke (Hayley Orrantia) is seriously upset over something, and it isn’t until she opens up on an impromptu coffee date that she discovers Brooke’s brother was killed in a car accident and she has been struggling to come to terms ever since. Miss Wesley informs her that one of the ways she comes to terms with things is through her walk with the Lord, something Brooke doesn’t begin to consider until The Salvation Army cleans out her brother’s room and finds his annotated Bible.
One day in class, Brooke asks Miss Wesley a question regarding Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent protest methods and whether or not they were similar to the way Jesus Christ conducted himself. Miss Wesley responds by speaking of Jesus Christ in a historical context, and before she knows it, the reactionary school board is on her case about bringing up religion in the classroom. What could’ve been handled and dropped with a very simple explanation by Miss Wesley instead turns into a criminally long-winded, almost insufferable legal battle predicated off of Miss Wesley’s refusal to apologize or explain her motives and the school’s manipulative tactics to silence and shun her.
While Miss Wesley is represented by a young upstart named Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe), on the plaintiff’s side is Pete Kane (the great Ray Wise), an unrelenting prosecuting attorney representing the parents of Brooke who are simply looking to wrongfully accuse Miss Wesley so their daughter’s case goes national and she has a chance at getting accepted into an Ivy League school. Brooke, on the other hand, is kept out of the public eye against her will, though her testimony could make a serious difference in regards to Miss Wesley’s fate.
There’s also an entirely worthless, half-baked subplot involving a school’s pastor (David A.R. White, a regular in this latest batch of indie Christian films) guiding a young Asian student (Paul Kwo) in his new walk with Jesus, much to the dismay of his father. The pastor is also serving as one of the jury members in Miss Wesley’s trial, but succumbs to an unexplained bout of sickness halfway through the trial, resulting in immediate hospitalization that is never quite elaborated on after it occurs. It’s common for faith-based films to have multiple, intersectional subplots, but here, it feels not only gratuitous, but so tacked on that it can’t even explain or justify its relevance to the core story.
It really doesn’t matter because the core story is so frothy and unbelievably trite that it begs an explanation. The courtroom scenes follow the laws of movies perfectly in that they include shouting, leading, fist-pounding, and unprofessional actions that would send a real court spiraling before it even began. On top of that, we only get the testimonies delivered by Tom and Miss Wesley rather than rebuttals or comments from the plaintiff’s side, making this a cruelly one-sided debate if I’ve ever seen one. Imagine going to see a debate where one side doesn’t show up but the other side just keeps on talking; that, in essence, is God’s Not Dead 2.
The conclusion of the film is also pretty baffling, as it doesn’t make much sense in terms of how we get the end result. However, it clearly doesn’t matter, because once the Christian rock band the Newsboys show up, yet again, to hold a prayer for Miss Wesley at one of their concerts, and the blaring tune “God’s Not Dead (He’s Surely Alive)” starts echoing the arena, it’s game over for atheists and free thinkers. While God’s Not Dead 2 might not have the cloying emotional sentiment of films cut from a similar cloth, such as Miracles from Heaven or War Room, it doesn’t do much to hold its own in the face of adversity and still owns its persecution complex like it’s a sign that says, “try me, I dare you!”
NOTE: God’s Not Dead 2 ends by asking viewers to text everyone they know “God’s not dead, he’s surely alive!” and shows audiences that the film was inspired by numerous legal battles involving God in classrooms. It lists many of them in detail, but scrolls so fast that you either don’t have a chance to read the entire blurb or forget it as soon as you read it. In that sense, it appropriately compliments the film it follows.