Sometimes, a movie just makes you smile.
As I was sitting back watching the first feature film from Indiana-based Gaffer Media, it wasn't the film's storyline that had me smiling but the thought of director George Johnson, a faith-based filmmaker responsible for Homeless for the Holidays, hunkered down alongside the group of kids, mostly aged 11-18, who comprise a good majority of the cast and crew behind the thought-provoking and meaty Two Steps from Hope, the first film to come out of Johnson's innovative and inspiring Decatur, Indiana-based project called Gaffer Media that has so far played to sold-out hometown audiences at the Regal Cinemas Coldwater Crossing 14 in Fort Wayne, Indiana as it begins its journey through the indie fest circuit.
According to the Gaffer Media website, "Gaffer Media utilizes arts-based experiences to help students understand their story in Christ and communicate that story. Our initial focus is on film production and the various processes associated with this art form." Beginning in March 2016, Gaffer Media, a ministry of Common Ground Church, began working with youth in the Northeast Indiana region where Decatur is located with a vision of producing a theatre quality full feature film.
Two Steps from Hope was born.
While Johnson is credited as the film's director, Two Steps from Hope is a collaborative effort that weaves together exploring faith with allowing the participating youths to develop specific skills pointing them toward a life of leadership and success that is informed by their faith and also grounded in their ability to communicate strongly both their faith and in their chosen paths in life.
It's an ambitious project. If Two Steps from Hope is any indicator, it's also a success.
Two Steps from Hope centers around the family of Michael (Matt Moore) and Maria Adams (Jennifer Bennett), a seemingly idyllic family when tragedy strikes and daughter Jamie (Josce Gallimore), whose actions largely put in motion a domino effect that one could say led to the tragedy, is left to try to right the wrongs and bring restoration to the once perfect family that is now falling apart.
With a story constructed via an intentional structure of brainstorming and collaboration amongst the youths and their teachers, Two Steps from Hope looks and feels like the deconstructing of a tragedy through the observant eyes of a youth and the impact that one's faith, even during times of crisis, can have on such a tragedy. There's no denying that Two Steps from Hope isn't a perfect film, after all it is constructed by the ground up largely by novice youths with no film experience as guided by Johnson, D.P. Tony E. Griffin, their teachers and the additional wardrobe and casting support of Karen Johnson.
However, in those times when Two Steps from Hope occasionally is hindered by its novice crew and lower budget the film often finds its greatest power in a state of naturalness and authenticity that is largely absent in contemporary cinema. While those who avoid faith-based cinema aren't likely to consider Two Steps from Hope the film that changes their mind, those who do have a deep appreciation will likely remember back to the early days of the Kendrick Brothers and Sherwood Baptist Church's first film, Flywheel, remembering that film's vital message that shone through any technical limitations the film possessed. To this day, Flywheel remains one of my favorite Kendrick Brothers' films.
If there's a weakness to be found in Two Steps from Hope it's likely in the fact that it sort of layers on the interpersonal dramas in a way that begins to feel a tad manipulative, an approach that begins to but never actually jeopardizes the film's prized authenticity. The weird thing is that I had this sense that it was exactly how these dramas might feel to a younger mind, a dramatic approach that emphasizes the domino effect that such tragedies can have in our lives and how they can threaten our faith journeys and our relationships if we allow that to happen. In the case of Jamie, salvation, if you will, is found in an unexpected friendship formed with Liam (Jeremiah Simerman), a faithful young man whose earnest approach toward Jamie is unquestionably sincere and one can't help but think how every single human being in the world going through a tragedy needs a Liam in their life.
The original music by Matthew Wayne Murray fits beautifully within the film, while Griffin's lensing is more observational and allows the drama to unfold naturally.
There's a naturalness to the film's ensemble cast, again comprised largely of newcomers or relative novices to the film industry, that helps to drive home the film's message. While the film's scenes of heightened drama occasionally fall a bit flat, these are minor flaws in what feels like authentic storytelling. As Jamie, Josce Gallimore is tasked with portraying an essentially good young woman simultaneously going through a bit of a rebellious phase yet possessing of a maturity that makes her transition over the course of the film a believable one. Gallimore's a gem here, believably rebellious yet just as believable when she begins turning her eyes back toward God and a healthier peer group. As her parents, Matt Moore and Jennifer Bennett bring to life the challenges of a loving relationship surviving unfathomable tragedy.
Among the supporting players, major kudos must be given to Simerman, whose simple and earnest performance gives Liam a purity that fits perfectly with the storyline and, in all likelihood, explains the safe place for healing that he helps provide the wounded Jamie. Kennedy Martin, as Rebecca, and Sharon Nelson, as Lanae, also shine in relatively brief yet important supporting roles.
Two Steps from Hope may not be a perfect film, but it's a perfect start for the folks involved with Gaffer Media and all those who seek to inspire and empower youths to live more confidently into their faith journeys and their daily lives. With a thought-provoking story and an important reminder that God is with us in every moment of every day, Two Steps from Hope is a little indie gem and a wonderful reminder that we are all, indeed, only two steps from hope.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic