If you were to have your back turned away from Journey to Bethlehem, you might think you've stumbled into a screening of High School Musical or Glee, the latter being particularly appropriate as Journey to Bethlehem co-writer/director Adam Anders has spent much of his musical career on such familiar projects as Glee, Rock of Ages, and The Prom among others.
So, it's possibly not surprising that Journey to Bethlehem is a vibrant, entertaining film. It's a faith-based rom-com musical with charismatic characters, plenty of laughs, and music that you'll likely remember long after you've seen the film.
Yet, in the midst of it all, Anders has wisely remembered the importance of the story and the necessity of its heart-filled center. Indeed, I'm not sure I've ever seen heart and humor so majestically intertwined as it is in this live-action musical centered around the Nativity story.
The end result is one of the most entertaining faith-based films of the year and a film destined to become a holiday classic.
Journey to Bethlehem begins with Mary (Fiona Palomo, Outer Banks) receiving the news that she is engaged to be married to a man she has yet to meet. Distraught over this change in her own plans for her life, Mary escapes to "go shopping" with gal pals Deborah (singer Moriah) and Rebekah (Stephanie Gil, Terminator: Dark Fate) and stumbles into a sort of meet-cute not realizing that this attractive young lad is the man to whom she is betrothed, Joseph (Milo Manheim, Zombies).
Let's just say the official meeting doesn't go well.
We can also say for sure that Anders, writing alongside Peter Barsocchini, has taken a few dramatic liberties with the story, a fact acknowledged by the filmmaker along with the fact that a strong effort has been made to remain faithful to the essence and messages of the actual story. A lifelong Christian, Anders clearly takes the story seriously while also finding a way to deliver it that is actually quite mesmerizing.
There are a myriad of reasons that Journey to Bethlehem works, though it all begins with the charisma and chemistry shared by its lead performers. Manheim, who is also set to appear in the upcoming indie horror title Thanksgiving, captures all the conflicted wonder of Joseph and fills Joseph with an abundance of heart, humor, humility, and fierce loyalty. It's a beautiful performance of a character who often takes a stoic backseat to that of Mary.
Then, of course, there is Mary. Can we just acknowledge that Fiona Palomo is luminous? She made me laugh. She made me cry. And yes, she made me believe. In a film that is so incredibly entertaining, Palomo infuses it with an abundance of heart that never lets us forget why we're here.
While the leads are magnificent, one mustn't forget to mention the brilliantly cast Antonio Banderas as King Herod, essentially the personification of evil. Banderas camps it up, yet never goes too far over-the-top. There's something delicious about his performance and he's an absolute delight. As his eldest son, Joel Smallbone (of the Christian band For King and Country) shines as the conflicted Herod Antipater. Christian rapper Lecrae is also exceptional as Gabriel.
Truthfully, the entire ensemble shines and it works wonders to have had so many talented singers in what is truly a faith-based musical.
Lensing by Xavi Gimenez is a wonderful tapestry humor and holy. Anders and Peer Astrom contribute the film's energized yet emotionally resonant original music.
Quite honestly, there's just so much to love here.
Opening in theaters nationwide from Affirm Films on November 10th, Journey to Bethlehem is a unique and inspired take on the Nativity story that brings it to life in a way destined to have crossover appeal. Destined to become a holiday favorite of believers and non-believers for years to come, Journey to Bethlehem is a journey you'll want to take.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic