Mandy Moore, Jena Malone, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Heather Matarazzo
Brian Dannelly, Michael Urban
Are you down with G-O-D?
I've struggled with my rating on this film for one simple reason. I LOVED this film....I laughed, I cried and I came away from the film genuinely impressed with the script, the performances and the direction. So, why the struggle? When I look at this film with my critical eye I cannot deny that there are some basic problems within the film. My heart is telling me this is an A- film, yet when I approach it critically I have to acknowledge that it just misses the "A" range due to a few minor flaws.
First, however, the basics. My fear is that my recommendation of this film will end up much like my recommendation of "Pumpkin," another dark, somewhat twisted yet insightful comedy that rubbed many people the wrong way and totally turned off many others. I absolutely loved that film, and it rests comfortably in my Top 10. This film, while not at that level, also features wonderful performances, a balanced and insightful script penned by Brian Dannelly (who also directed) and Michael Urban. This film has garnered much of its attention due to the fact that REM's lead singer, Michael Stipe, is one of the film's producers. This fact alone caused me to consider the film a must-see, and I was not disappointed.
I have read of fundamentalist Christians becoming upset over their portrayal in this film. That blows me away, as I think this film features some of the most honest, balanced and authentic characters ever to walk through a Christian high school. When the film was over, it occurred to me that each character had strengths, weaknesses, moments of great holiness and moments of great failure. None of them proved to be "perfect" Christians, and all of them benefited by mercy and grace.
First, in the lead role, we have Jena Malone. Malone has been choosing extraordinary roles since her early appearance in "Bastard Out of Carolina." I will confess that I somewhat understand some of the comments I've heard that she is almost too passive at times. Malone's character, a young Christian girl who plays in a Christian music group and is considered one of the "in" crowd...suddenly finds her path forever changed when she feels God is calling her to have sex with her boyfriend, who has just announced that he is gay. Much to her dismay, God does not do his part by ensuring her virginity is restored AND she ends up pregnant. Malone plays her interactions well, and her facial expressions are phenomenal. It did feel, at times, like she was almost too calm about the entire situation that would forever change her life and call her to addressing her entire belief system. Generally, though, I loved her performance and her chemistry with the rest of the cast allows the performance to shine.
Mandy Moore gets to cut loose a bit here as Hillary Faye, the lead singer of the Christian music group and a stereotypical "holier than thou" Christian girl. Moore brings out Faye's convictions with remarkable sincerity...in what could have simply been a portrayal of a haughty Christian, Moore brings us a young lady who is simply trying to live her faith, misguided at times...there's a humanity that allows us to care about her even as she is clearly headed down the wrong path.
Macaulay Culkin offers a performance I was prepared to hate. I'm always troubled by Hollywood's resistance to using physically challenged actors in films. I'm so tired of able-bodied actors playing guys/girls in wheelchairs. While the issue still bothers me, Culkin does a wonderful job here as Hillary's brother, Roland, who ends up going out with Cassandra, the "Jewish" girl (wonderfully played by Eva Amurri, Susan Sarandon's daughter). The scenes between Culkin and Amurri brought me to tears with their simplicity, sweetness and tenderness. Truly powerful and wonderful.
Other strong performances are offered by Heather Matarazzo, who was brilliant in Todd Solondz' "Welcome to the Dollhouse," Martin Donovan as Pastor Skip, Mary Catherine Parker as Malone's mother and perhaps the most balanced character, Patrick, played wonderfully and sensitively by Patrick Fugit (most remembered for "Almost Famous").
The film, which spends the first half skewering Christianity, does an about face in many ways and becomes a lesson in tolerance and diversity. All these characters, except Patrick, appear to have fatal flaws...yet their honesty, openness, surrender and desire to live a life of faith are evident throughout the film. These are not bad people...these are good people who make some bad choices along the way.
I must also mention the music, which includes a unique but beautiful version of "God Only Knows" by Michael Stipe and Mandy Moore.
This is not a perfect film. In some ways, the ending is a bit of a let down...in some ways, I wanted the "edge" to stay throughout the film. Yet, for some reason, I found myself happy with the ending. I found myself happy with all of the characters and their resolution. Fundamentalist Christians may very well be offended here...There is room to be, because the humanity of faith is portrayed very vividly and, in some ways, objectionably. Yet, for me, the film resonated deeply and powerfully. I grew to deeply care about these characters because of their humanity. These characters were brought to life by a wonderful ensemble cast who clearly connected with the humanity and the spirituality of their roles. This film...it made me laugh...it made me cry...it affirmed my spiritual path and my life journey. I highly recommend catching this film if it comes to your community!
ADDENDUM: I received this DVD for my birthday and upon a second viewing have elevated this film to an A-. I appreciated the film more, laughed and cried. Truly, this is one of the best "teen" films I've seen.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic