I can still remember sitting in the movie theater watching Facing the Giants and thinking to myself "Finally, a Christian filmmaker who understands that making a faith-based film is about more than simply preaching to the choir."
Oh sure, Facing the Giants preached it. But, it was different. Facing the Giants put on display a faith that was fully lived into and not just squeaky clean people saying squeaky clean things about their squeaky clean God in ways that anybody who wasn't squeaky clean would find repulsive. While there certainly were exceptions, up to the point of Facing the Giants Christian cinema pretty much had the reputation of being low-budget, low talent, light plot and heavy evangelizing without a story that would attract anyone outside the front pew.
Facing the Giants truly changed things and turned Alex and Stephen Kendrick into beacons of light for a faith-based film industry that wanted desperately to grow but didn't quite know how to make it happen. While Facing the Giants was their second film, being preceded by the even more low-budget Flywheel, it was the film that launched the careers of the Kendrick Brothers and their Sherwood Baptist Church-based Sherwood Pictures.
With a less than six-figure budget, Facing the Giants brought in over $10 million and announced to Hollywood that Americans were ready to see quality faith-based cinema. While Facing the Giants occasionally looked like a low-budget indie, it resonated with the public and Hollywood listened.
Fireproof followed with a slightly elevated production budget of $500,000 and box-office receipts of over $32 million, partly on the strength of star Kirk Cameron, and the film spawned a growing number of ancillary ministry outreaches including books, Bible lessons, marital aids and a host of other products.
In 2011, the Kendrick Brothers gave us Courageous, which featured an extravagant on their terms $2 million production budget and grossed over $34 million at the box-office.
This brings us to War Room, the latest Kendrick Brothers film, as usual Alex directs and both he and brother Stephen co-write, a TriStar Pictures release hitting theaters on August 28th and featuring their highest production budget yet at $3 million.
Closer in tone to Fireproof than Facing the Giants, War Room is an unapologetically faith-based film that may very well be the Kendrick Brothers' preachiest film yet but it's a preachiness that will resonate with faith-based moviegoers and those who've come to appreciate the brothers and their ability to weave real faith into real life. While I personally do somewhat lament the loss of the wider net cast by the more universally themed and story-driven Facing the Giants, there's still something refreshing about a filmmaker finding their true voice and remaining faithful to it.
Yeah, I said faithful.
The truth is that I think War Room is the kind of film that the Kendrick Brothers truly want to make. It's a quality indie film, unabashedly faith-based and unashamedly preachy. While you could become captivated by the story in Facing the Giants whether you were a person of faith or not, if you're not a person of faith it's hard to imagine a reason you'd find yourself stumbling into the multi-plex to catch a film centered nearly 100% around the matter of our prayer lives.
The story centers around Tony (T.C. Stallings) and Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla Evans Shirer), a seemingly idyllic couple with successful careers, a lovely daughter and a beautiful home. Alas, not all is as it seems. Tony's relentless pursuit of success has put a strain on his marriage, while Elizabeth is downward spiraling into bitterness and apathy. Danielle (Alena Pitts), Tony and Elizabeth's daughter, is caught in the middle.
With her marriage seemingly on the rocks, Elizabeth's life begins to change when she encounters a new real estate client, Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), an elderly woman whose home offers a rather unique feature - a war room.
You do get this, right?
The "war room" is a room devoted to a disciplined prayer life. When she's challenged by Miss Clara to adopt a prayer strategy for her family, suddenly Elizabeth's life begins to change and Tony comes face-to-face with some decisions that may determine the future of his family.
For the first time, the Kendrick Brothers are working with a nearly all African-American cast while still telling a rather universal story. While I'll confess that I found myself cringing a couple of times at what I was hoping were inadvertent racial stereotypes, If you've read my other reviews of Kendrick films, then you'll know that their "relationship" films tend to be my least favorite. I found myself more than a little bit troubled by Fireproof, though I had no problem believing that how I believed the film could be taken was not how the Kendrick's intended it to be taken. That said, it's not an unreasonable argument that churches to this day put an awful lot of the responsibility for a relationship's success on women and too often cross that line into potentially endorsing submitting to domestic violence/abuse. For me, Fireproof danced awfully close to that line and occasionally tiptoed across it.
While War Room doesn't possess the heavy hand that Fireproof did, it's still a film that lays a heavy burden on the wife to be the strong, spiritually disciplined and sacrificial one in the relationship - at least until the husband comes around.
Now then, if it seems like I'm bashing War Room that's actually not the case. War Room is an honest, heartfelt film that will resonate deeply with anyone, primarily those of faith, who has struggled with surrendering to God when surrendering is the last thing you want to do. It's essentially a film about taking the high road when the high road doesn't even make sense.
You've been there, haven't you?
The film is at times so formulaic in its good intentions that you may start to think you've stumbled into a Tyler Perry film, though it benefit greatly from honest dialogue and what may be the best cast yet in a Kendrick Brothers film. T.C. Stallings is convincing both as a man who is a wildly successful and charismatic pharmaceutical rep and, especially in the film's later scenes, as a man with a painful to watch downward spiral. While the Kendricks wrap everything up a little bit too neatly by film's end, Stalling keeps it feeling authentic the entire way. As the long-suffering wife, Priscilla Evans Shirer has an almost Phylicia Rashad quality about her draws you in and doesn't let you go. As Miss Clara, Karen Abercrombie is tasked with portraying a wise old sage in a way that doesn't come off as a caricature. For the most part, she succeeds and Miss Clara becomes yet another memorable character from the Kendrick Brothers.
The film's best performance may very well come from young Alena Pitts as Danielle, a delightful young child struggling to make sense of a home that can't possibly make sense. While there are times that the other performances in the film feel like they're truly trying to bring home the film's messages, Pitts simply relaxes and delivers an involving, sweet and occasionally heartbreaking performance that lights up the screen every time she shows up.
The fact that War Room is rated PG should tell you that the Kendrick Brothers don't really push the envelope here in terms of marital conflicts or potentially bad choices. While the film's timidity and overwhelming devotion to prayer as one of the ultimate answers to any of life's problems will most likely limit its crossover appeal, there's very little doubt that the Kendricks are less worried about crossing over and far more concerned about telling the story they want to tell here.
While there will be those who fault War Room for its "preachy" qualities, it's not too difficult to figure out that this film is less about evangelizing and far more about encouraging the faith journeys of Christians. If anything, War Room is more "teachy" than "preachy." It's a good film, Facing the Giants remains my favorite Kendrick Brothers film, and it's a film that will encourage those who get caught up in the "stuff" of life and forget that prayer is, indeed, quite the powerful weapon.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic