In 2006, Alabama born brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin began their filmmaking careers with a rather extraordinary documentary, The Cross and the Towers, a 9/11-themed documentary that screened at Indy's Heartland Film Festival and made an instant fan of this film journalist. Since then, the Erwin brothers have become a regular fixture on the faith-based and faith-inspired filmmaking scene with films that weave together deep, heartfelt stories with faith journeys and a hard-earned and even gut-wrenching optimism including such noteworthy films as October Baby and Woodlawn along with occasionally lighter fare like 2014's Moms' Night Out.
I Can Only Imagine may very well be their best film yet, a faith-based film for everyone based upon the true story behind one of contemporary Christian music's most popular songs of recent years, MercyMe's I Can Only Imagine.
Rather astoundingly, the two-time Dove Award-winning song was written in a matter of minutes by MercyMe's lead singer, Bart Millard, whose abusive childhood and estranged relationship with his father inspired the song that has inspired millions and become the best-selling Christian single of all-time.
If you resist seeing I Can Only Imagine solely because it is a faith-based film, all I can say is that you'll be missing a true gem of a film that soars on the strength of the Erwin Brothers' ability to tell a heartbreaking, authentic story in a deep and meaningful way without exploiting its subject matter or, as is more common in faith-based cinema, giving it a candy coating.
The Erwins have never been masters of subtlety, their stories and imagery often bathed in intentional symbolism and relentless emotional intensity. The same is unquestionably true here, yet such an approach is precisely the way to approach a film that tackles themes not often found in widely released faith-based cinema. While I Can Only Imagine successfully maintains its PG rating, which could be a hinderance given the seriousness of the story, the Erwins have assembled an ensemble cast of faith-based regulars and Hollywood vets who manage to drive home the film's intensity without having to resort to the very things the film is preaching against.
Erwin films have always possessed a passionate belief that faith can and does change lives, it can overcome even our darkest moments and this has seldom been as vividly and convincingly portrayed as it is in telling this story behind I Can Only Imagine. The film deals with the effects of child abuse, and in Millard's case it was quite often emotionally and physically brutal violence inflicted by his father, Arthur (Dennis Quaid). Despite having discovered faith at a young age, Bart's life was incredibly challenging from early on. Played as a young boy by Brody Rose, we flinch along with young Bart every time Arthur enters the room, especially during those times when Bart's mother wasn't around. Arthur's temper was quick, impulsive and brutal and became further fueled, at least it would seem, when Bart discovered a love for theater and using his imagination. Portrayed as a teenager and adult by J. Michael Finley, Bart's abuse would only worsen as he got older before, after one too many beatings along with a broken relationship with his high school sweetheart, Bart would leave home and meet those would eventually become his MercyMe bandmates.
Fans of MercyMe will likely benefit from seeing this portrayal of their struggling early days. Intellectually, we know these days to be true of the vast majority of bands yet I Can Only Imagine adds meaning to the MercyMe journey by bringing to life those early struggles with a touch music business and those days of traveling across the country on a dilapidated old bus. I Can Only Imagine manages to beautifully portray the simple truth that a life of faith doesn't always equal a life of ease, in fact the opposite is often quite true. We get a sense of the calling that fueled MercyMe and a powerful sense of the faith that kept Bart Millard afloat even as he struggled with his childhood abuse even into those years when the band was becoming successful.
Eventually, the journey of Bart's father will require Bart to examine his own relationship with forgiveness and reconciliation. It was this journey, perhaps more than anything, that inspired him to write I Can Only Imagine, which turned MercyMe into international superstars and one of the few Christian bands to crossover into mainstream mass appeal.
The addition of Dennis Quaid as Arthur is nothing short of a stroke of genius, admittedly an occasionally difficult to watch and uncomfortable one. Quaid digs deeper, refusing to settle for the surface of Arthur's story and absolutely unflinching in his portrayal of Arthur's intermittent explosiveness and ability to justify it all. While the entire ensemble cast is strong here, one must also give major kudos to J. Michael Finley for serving up such a remarkable, insightful and intelligent performance that goes beyond the inspirational bravado and into the complexities Bart's inner wounds and unresolved anger. Anger is often a difficult emotion to convincingly portray in faith-based cinema, yet it's brought to life here in a way that will likely feel familiar and resonate emotionally. Finley has a Broadway musical background and more than admirably brings to life key musical scenes within the film.
Brent McCorkle's music adds beautifully to the film, an absolute necessity given the film is, after all, about the lead singer of MercyMe, while Kristopher Kimlin's lensing is rich and authentic and avoids the saccharine softness so often found in inspirational films and stories. Ultimately, this is a film that benefits greatly from the Erwins and their top notch directorial effort.
One can only hope that I Can Only Imagine becomes one of the more popular faith-based films because this is exactly what a faith-based film should be - uncompromisingly faithful yet grounded in honest humanity and a hopefulness that should appeal to audiences far and wide.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic