I've always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the faith-based film industry.
As one of the few primarily secular film journalists to regularly cover faith-based films, both local and wide-release, I've gained a bit of a reputation within the industry as a fair-minded yet incredibly honest critic. I've interviewed a good number of the faith-based cinematic heavies including such well known names as Alex Kendrick, Kevin Downes, Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr., Todd Burpo, Erin Bethea, the Erwin Brothers and quite a few more.
The truth is that I love faith-based cinema.
I am, after all, a seminary graduate who's been a pastor, chaplain and worked in a variety of ministry capacities over the years.
But, alas, I'm also a film critic. I'm also, it should be noted, a person who self-identifies as being on the more progressive end of Christianity and that has, at times, caused a conflict or two when it comes to reviews.
I can agree with a filmmaker's message and give the film a bad review.
I can disagree with a filmmaker's message and give the film a good review.
I can, in fact, simply write honestly about a film.
Trust me when I say that honesty is just about the last thing in the world a good number of faith-based filmmakers actually want. Over the years, I've received more hate mail, and even death threats, from fans and friends of faith-based cinema.
Now then, if you've been paying attention your red flag likely already went up as I sit here to share my experience with watching Unplanned, a relentlessly pro-life film arriving in theaters this weekend courtesy of faith-based and family friendly indie distributor Pure Flix Entertainment.
The red flag? That word "progressive."
Admit it. You just cringed. You just said to yourself "He's going to trash the film. Those darn liberals."
First off, I'm not a liberal. I'm a progressive. Yes, there's a difference.
Secondly, I'm not going to trash the film.
Because, as I noted...I'm a film journalist and I'm one with a tremendous amount of integrity.
The simple truth is that, like most faith-based wide-release films, Unplanned is going to get trashed.
It's going to get trashed a lot. It's going to get scathing reviews, some of which will be legit and many of which will be more revealing of the writer's political bent than it will be an actual viable critique of the film.
This is not to say that Unplanned is a perfect film. It's not. It's a modestly budgeted indie where that modest budget occasionally comes into play. It's a film that wears its agenda on its sleeve and I'm guessing anyone who disagrees with that agenda isn't likely to fork over the dough to actually watch the film.
I mean, seriously, do you really think this is a film that's going to rely on film reviews for its box-office? Don't be silly. This film has a target audience and that target audience will show up just like Tyler Perry fans show up for Madea after Madea after Madea whether it's a good Madea or a bad Madea. It doesn't hurt that co-writers/directors Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman have served up such popular flicks as God's Not Dead 1 and 2 and Do You Believe?
In case you're wondering, I trashed God's Not Dead while noting God's Not Dead 2 as a notable improvement over its predecessor.
Unplanned is the first R-rated film to be distributed by Pure Flix Entertainment and one of the very few R-rated faith-based films to ever get anything resembling a wide release theatrically. Faith-based audiences don't, at least historically, show up in droves for R-rated cinema but Unplanned is likely to be an exception. The film stars Ashley Bratcher (War Room) as Abby Johnson, a young woman who gets a job at the local Planned Parenthood clinic and quickly works her way up the clinic's leadership eventually becoming one of Planned Parenthood's youngest clinic directors. All is well for Abby despite the opposition for her work that she faces on a regular basis from her husband and her parents, though everything changes for her when the clinic's physician asks for her assistance during a 13-week pregnancy termination (ie, abortion). As she provides assistance, it's her experience watching what unfolds on the sonogram monitor that changes Abby's heart and leads to her resignation from Planned Parenthood and subsequent involvement with 40 Days For Life, the group that had so frequently protested outside the clinic where she once worked.
It's important, perhaps, to realize that Unplanned is based upon a true story. Abby Johnson is a real human being and Unplanned is based upon her real life experiences ... at least as shared by her. My hunch is that Planned Parenthood would be likely to disagree with certain facts as presented, though it's still important to realize that the story that unfolds in Unplanned is based upon a true story.
It should, in all likelihood, already be apparent if Unplanned is a film for you.
If you're position is one of hardcore pro-choice, then you will either fervently despise Unplanned or, perhaps more likely, you will be moved by its story yet unrelenting in your existing position.
Unplanned isn't likely to change your mind.
If you're a supporter of Planned Parenthood? All I can say is avoid the film. Seriously. While the film's early scenes are surprisingly respectful of those who work within the Planned Parenthood clinic, affording them much dignity and grace, the film's final third amps up the issue's politicalization and demonization of all things Planned Parenthood.
It's there. You should expect it. The only surprise is that it's not there for the first 2/3 of the film.
You should also be aware that Unplanned earned its R-rating, most likely coming courtesy of a flashback sequence Ashley experiences after the trauma of assisting in the abortion and the memories come flooding back of her own chemically induced, more difficult than advertised abortion years earlier. These scenes are harrowing, difficult yet necessary to watch.
Unplanned features, especially in its early scenes, some surprisingly balanced scenes considering there's absolutely never a doubt about the film's position on the matter. The adults involved here have healthy, balanced discussions on both sides of the argument and they treat each other with compassion and respect. There's also information about the process of abortion itself, information that is presented in a rather balanced way though, once again, my gut tells me that Planned Parenthood reps would likely disagree with certain descriptions and definitions that are presented as "fact."
Much of the reason that Unplanned works as well as it does is due to the disciplined, nuanced performance of Bratcher, who wisely avoids the expected dramatic highs in favor of a heartfelt, intimate performance in which her Abby Johnson is a real woman experiencing the kind of very real trauma you get when everything you've believed you simply no longer believe anymore. Bratcher gives an intelligent, sensitive performance and it carries the film throughout much of its nearly two-hour running time and even when it threatens to go off the rails toward the end.
The film's executive producer, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, makes a cameo in these final scenes and these scenes practically drip with a sort of theological venom that nearly undermines the film's effectiveness throughout its first 2/3.
Notice I said "nearly."
Fortunately, the film even at its most political still largely stays focused on the person at the center of its story, Abby Johnson, and that focus allows the film to be one of the most successfully rendered faith-based pro-life films to date. However, Unplanned also squanders the chance to have a wider impact thanks to the hyper-politicization of its closing 30 minutes and that's unfortunate because up to that point the film is surprisingly balanced, sympathetic and concerned more about the people than the politics.
Listen, it's weird writing a review that I know quite well won't please either my conservative or more progressive readers. My conservative readers, and I have many, will be dismayed by the concerns that I do have with the film and will passionately disagree with my concerns about politicization.
My progressive friends, on the other hand, are likely to be even more disturbed by the fact that I even reviewed Unplanned and that I have, Gasp!, actually given it a fair and decent review.
I'm already expecting the hate mail.
However, Unplanned is a film that largely accomplishes what it sets out to do and it gains in strength in power on the back of Bratcher's winning, warm and very human performance. Jared Lotz and Emma Elle Roberts also shine as supporting players, while Drew Maw's lensing follows pace with the film's tonal shifts and the film's expected musical contributions are also top notch from some of Christian music's most familiar folks including Matthew West.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic