It's not very often that I think to myself that a faith-based film deserves a really wider release, but such is the case with the recent digital/VOD release Small Group, a surprisingly satisfying and occasionally quite moving motion picture written by first-time director Matt Chastain that starts off rather light and fluffy before doing a convincing segue into meatier and more meaningful material.
Faith-based cinema has seemingly always had an uneasy existence in Hollywood, often dismissed by the masses because of its tendency to preach rather than engage or entertain yet just as often falling short when it attempts to become more accessible in both entertainment and messaging. While faith-based cinema has grown massively in both quality and reach in recent years, there's still a tendency with most moviegoers to do a leery side-eye when yet another Christian motion picture finds itself in the multiplex.
While Small Group certainly isn't a masterpiece, it's a genuinely engaging and entertaining motion picture that tackles that delicate dance that we all see portrayed in daily society as believers and non-believers try to peacefully co-exist and even find common ground.
Is there common ground?
Truthfully, I found myself quite moved by Small Group. I'm both a minister and a bit of a cynic when it comes to faith-based cinema, a critical thinker who's not hesitant to give negative reviews when appropriate yet someone who welcomes quality faith-based cinema and looks forward to the day when the leery side-eye goes away. Small Group is a film that deserves a wider audience. Matt Chastain gets it right and ends up producing a faith-based motion picture that entertains without compromise its faith along the way.
Sterling Hurst stars as Scott, a generally well-meaning agnostic filmmaker hired by a generally not well-meaning producer (Robert Riechel, Jr.) to take on a film about a group of Atlanta Christians. While Scott envisions a genuine delving into their daily lives, our producer envisions envisions something a little darker to expose the hypocrisy of contemporary Christianity. With his wife Mary (Emily Dunlop, television's Doom Patrol) and daughter Casey (Copelyn Chastain) by his side, Scott goes undercover and it seems, at least initially, like we might get exactly what we expect - a pop culture skewing expose of bubble gum Christianity where our well-meaning filmmaker either will not, or will, fall prey to its seductive charms.
Strangely enough, that's not what really happens.
Oh sure, Chastain teases us with early scenes of worship experiences resembling rock concerts and small groups that are more than a little squirm-inducing but somewhere alongn the way special things start to happen in Small Group and this ordinary film becomes a rather extraordinary experience.
Once Small Group journeys to Guatemala courtesy of a mission trip where Scott further has his worldview altered and spirit fed, Chastain offers a steady directorial hand in turning the film into a more thoughtful and meaningful motion picture.
Hurst offers a winning performance as Scott, whose journey is believable throughout but especially becomes compelling as he returns from Guatemala and pieces of his facade start to be revealed through means not to be disclosed here. Both Emily Dunlop and Copelyn Chastain are quite enjoyable as well, Dunlop's Mary having her own revelations in Scott's absence and experiencing her own journey that feels alive and honest.
In addition to writing and directing, Chastain provides much of the film's lighter moments as Shane while Robert Riechel, Jr. is appropriately smarmy as the ill-meaning producer who could easily be a caricature here but for the most part is not.
Small Group picked up the Best Picture prize at the International Christian Film Festival, while Hurst took home that fest's prize for Best Actor. The film is now available via digital and VOD via GathrFilms and Ocean Avenue Entertainment.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic