When I say the words "faith-based film" what do you think of?
Do you think about those early films of the Christian filmmaking industry that were marked by awkwardly low-budget production values, amateurish acting, preaching as plot and little to no chance of ever seeing a multiplex?
Maybe you think about a Kendrick brothers film like Facing the Giants, Courageous or Fireproof? These were films that managed to both preach to the choir and reach a wider audience and, subsequently, helped trigger a massive growth spurt in the Christian film industry.
Or maybe you simply think about films like Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ or similar films that fell into the realm of secular cinema yet tackled faith and religion in new and exciting ways?
Whatever type of Christian film you think of, the simple truth is that the Christian film industry is growing in terms of popularity, quality and influence. Pure Flix Entertainment is an example of this growth - a growing distributor of faith and family movies that has already enjoyed tremendous success with theatrical releases of God's Not Dead and Do You Believe? among others.
While I will confess that I'm often hit-and-miss with Pure Flix releases, sometimes considering them indie gems and fine family entertainment and sometimes considering them so irritatingly preachy that I'm pretty sure that even God would change the channel, the truth is that I was looking forward to their latest theatrical release, Faith of Our Fathers, which co-stars Kevin Downes and David A.R. White have both called a more personal and meaningful film.
In the film, two young fathers report for duty during the Vietnam War in 1969, one a deep man of faith while the other a natural skeptic. 25 years later, their sons, Wayne (David A.R. White) and John (Kevin Downes) meet as strangers having lived out their lives with that sort of empty gnawing at the soul that comes from never having known one's father and still having been shaped by that absence. Guided by handwritten letters from their fathers written on the battlefield, the two young men embark on an adventure to visit "The Wall," the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Along the way, the two men discover that even the devastation of war can't possibly disrupt the love of a father for his son.
Faith of Our Fathers is undoubtedly a well intended film, a film that celebrates both brotherhood and fatherhood and that attempts to provide a faith-based, inspiring reflection on those who served during the Vietnam War and the impact that it left on future generations in both positive and negative ways.
There's just one problem - Faith of Our Fathers just isn't very good.
The problems start with the film's opening credits, a tasteless montage of cast names displayed over the same Vietnam Veterans Memorial that the film is purportedly trying to treat with dignity and respect. Even as a pacifist, I found myself appalled that someone thought it was a good idea to exploit the memory of Vietnam veterans in such a tactless and commercial way. After all, I'm pretty sure that no one in the cast of Faith of Our Fathers actually died in Vietnam.
I'm just guessing. I'm willing to be wrong.
Faith of Our Fathers doesn't get much better.
There are times that Faith of Our Fathers feels like Dukes of Hazzard meets 1950s war serial meets every bad buddy movie ever made. It's almost painful to watch a film that is trying so hard accomplish so little with that effort. I can easily forgive the film's excessively preachy and ridiculously histrionic theological statements - I am, after all, a preacher myself and I fully recognize that this isn't a film stretching to reach a secular audience. It's a theatrical release aimed squarely at the faith-based moviegoer.
So be it.
I can't forgive and won't forgive sloppy production quality, stilted and painfully silly dialogue, and far too many performances that seem like they're coming out of a college acting class from the bottom of the class.
If you're going to use flashbacks to Vietnam throughout your film, you have an obligation to at least make them modestly convincing rather than turning them into scenes that look like they were shot on the Saturday Night Live soundstage. The film, actually shot in Santa Clarita, California, never convinces as the two young fathers, played by Scott Whyte and Sean McGowan, look like they're painted up for bad Halloween party. As Sgt. Mansfield, Stephen Baldwin (You know? The Christian one!) proves that he's at his best as a character actor - just not this character.
The film smooths out somewhat during the times when we're following Wayne and John on what amounts to being an odd couple/road trip film to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Downes, a terrific writer/director, is miscast as John but he still manages to have his moments alongside the seemingly always solid David A.R. White, whose natural charisma and far more complex character is easily the film's highlight. Downes isn't necessarily bad, but he simply lacks the range of a man whose entire life has been impacted by unresolved and seemingly unresolvable issues that are slowly revealed over the course of the film.
On the plus side, at least Wayne wasn't played by Kirk Cameron.
Alternately, David A.R. White infuses the film with a rich authenticity, humor and emotional resonance that with a better supporting cast and production values could have turned this into a much more meaningful film.
As Wayne's fiancee', Candace Cameron Bure also adds a nice energy to the film even if her closing scenes resolve conflicts just a bit too neatly. Christian singer Rebecca St. James also has a relatively brief yet winning performance here, though a cameo from Si Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame, is nothing more than a silly trifle.
The film's production values are incredibly hit-and-miss. The special effects, especially during the film's war sequences, are laughably bad and, yes, that means I truly did laugh out loud during times I shouldn't have been laughing. The music from Marc and Steffan Fantini helps to project the appropriate mood, while D.P. Randall Gregg's lensing is most effective during the film's road trip scenes.
Faith of Our Fathers arrives in theaters a little over a month before the next Kendrick Brothers film, War Room, a film that also moves the Kendrick's away from that secular/Christian balance and squarely into the realm of a true faith-based film. While Faith of Our Fathers will very likely play well for many Christians, especially veterans and those who appreciated God's Not Dead's broad theological strokes that benefited mostly from opening opposite the more controversial Noah that ticked Christians off so much they'd have gone to see anything other than Noah. The film opens in limited nationwide release just in time for the July 4th weekend.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic