If you've been following my reviews for any length of time, then you likely have already realized that I tend to often find myself living on the grittier side of faith-based entertainment. It's a hard-earned reality I suppose, grounded deep within the reality of my own traumatic life experiences and my familiarity with the simple truth that being a Christian doesn't exempt one from the trials and tribulations of life.
So, I find myself deeply appreciative when a Christian filmmaker adds some grit between their cinematic teeth and finds a way to tell a story that is raw and honest and still deeply grounded within faith. Such is the case with writer/director Jeffrey A. Smith's Southern Gospel.
Southern Gospel centers itself around Samuel Allen (three-time Emmy nominee Max Ehrich), a preacher's kid who grows up with musical gifts galore but who gets distracted from his childhood ambition of becoming a preacher in favor of the lights and fame of the rock n' roll life. When the rock n' roll life becomes too much and tragedy strikes, Samuel attempts a detour to follow in his father's footsteps facing a multitude of challenges all along his journey.
Rated PG-13, this Bridgestone Multimedia Group release may not qualify as graphic but it also doesn't compromise in telling an often dark, emotionally intense story. However, Southern Gospel is unabashedly faith-filled while acknowledging harsh realities of life from childhood sexual abuse to suicide to alcohol/substance abuse and quite a bit more. Smith even dives head-first into the sometimes unrelenting brutality of church politics and overt legalism.
Truthfully, I found it all quite refreshing.
Set in the 1960s, Mark Dillon's production design practically bathes us in rich Americana and smalltown gospel atmosphere. Carmen Cabana's lensing infuses the film with an intimacy that can be simultaneously comforting and a little jarring at times with certain shots still lingering in my heart and mind.
Ehrich is an absolute gem as Samuel, convincing as a gifted rock n' roll artist yet also possessing a certain Southern Gospel swagger that you've likely witnessed for yourself if you've ever stepped foot inside a deep south Southern Baptist church. Katelyn Nacon absolutely envelopes the screen as Julie, with whom Samuel takes a shine and who's also had her own share of challenges. Gary Weeks, as Samuel's father Pastor Joe, also beautifully portrays the pastoral heart and a conflicted man torn between his own convictions and the often unreasonable folks who serve as his church's elder voices.
Original music by Tim Williams absolutely shines here, and in a film called Southern Gospel that just absolutely has to be true. Sam's rendition of "I Surrender All" is a showstopper and I'd watch this movie again for the music alone.
Among the supporting players, Emma Myers captivates as Angie Blackburn, J. Alphonse Nicholson devastates as Barry, and Justice Leak adds layer upon layer as T.L. Whittmore. Truthfully, the entire ensemble is strong here.
This Dove-approved film for ages 12+ may be a bit more gritty than your usual faith-based moviegoing experience, but Jeffrey A. Smith tells an honest, meaningful story and tells it incredibly well. As someone who's had my share, and maybe someone else's share, of traumatic life experiences, this message of faith and grace is one that resonates deeply as it reminds us that we have a God who gives us second, third, and fourth chances and who welcomes us back with open arms.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic