Doug Phillips's latest feature flick Weightier Matters is a peculiar beast of a film, an unapologetically faith-based film with a little more grit than is usually associated with the genre and yet also a cinematic effort that takes pop culture and twists it to fit nicely within its morality-based tale.
The film centers around Ashley LaPage (Grace Christenson), a now pregnant young woman who has an ex-boyfriend with violent tendencies (Steven McKillen) who's efforts to turn her life around are focused on a return to her Christian faith and her efforts to win a televised talent contest, think American Idol on a micro-budget, that would help her establish some degree of stability with a cash prize and recording contract. Of course, it's never quite as easy as just showing up and along Ashley's journey she'll have encounters with encouraging and not so encouraging judges, fellow contestants, the show's host, and even that dastardly ex.
Can she keep herself on track toward a healthier path with role models both positive and negative?
With Weightier Matters, Phillips is eyeing a return to the familiar territory of the micro-budget fest circuit but also has his eyes firmly focused on the more niche fest world of Christian film fests that should be a natural for this gritty but far from offensive project that definitely falls within the framework of faith-based filmmaking as cemented by its receiving a prized Dove Foundation Seal of Approval for ages 12+. One of the nation's most trusted sources of recognition for faith-based cinema, the Dove Foundation notes of Weightier Matters that it is "a story about turning destructive problems into healthy solutions. There are some life lessons to take away from the film. Though the film does contain adult themes and sexual material, we are awarding our Dove Seal at 12+ for the film’s faith elements."
Nearly all of Phillips's feature film efforts come in at right about the two-hour mark in terms of running time and it's worth noting that Weightier Matters uses about 1/3 of that running time on its musical segments featuring full-length versions of the songs performed. All of the tunes within the realm of light pop/adult contemporary/light hip-hop praise music that one would expect to hear on a Christian radio station. The four performers whom we initially meet all lip-sync, some more convincingly than others, but the energy is there and the tunes are for the most part enjoyable.
Regular Phillips collaborator Grace Christenson is front-and-center here as Ashley, whose side you get on rather quickly and who comes alive through Christenson's warm and honest performance. Christenson is easily one of the highlights of Weightier Matters. Ashley's chemistry with her ex is wholly unbelievable, the age difference between Christenson and McKillen so obvious that it borders on creepy and McKillen's performance so menacing that it's nearly impossible to believe these two were ever a thing.
The other main contestant in the film is played by Sarah DeYong, whose portrayal of Linda Salerno gives us a poppier, brighter alternative to Ashley's more soulful tunes and whose talent is obvious. It's a fun performance to watch and her chemistry with Christenson makes everything that unfolds believable and emotionally resonant.
The film's three judges include Ronnie (Richard D. Woods), Princess (Bonnie Rae), and Phillips as Steven, the Simon Cowell-tinged hater of the trio whose comments are nearly always scathing, hateful, and judgmental. The judges are clearly mimicking the American Idol style of judging, though given the low-budget nature of the film and of this particular talent contest they lack that show's spark and energy. The premise of the actual contest is a blast - each contest has to write an original song each week that they then perform live on the locally televised show. The show actually has three divisions - teens, young adults, and mature adults, however, Weightier Matters spends all its time with the young adults aged up to 35. Woods is the strongest of the three judges, his soulful attitude and demeanor spot-on perfect and he avoids any hint of caricature. Phillips easily has the most screen time in the film as his backstory is complex and we take a journey through how his on-screen shtick really evolved into his real personality. Phillips's Steven has the most complex story arc and given the film's faith-based nature it's clear he's going to transform over time. Bonnie Rae's Princess is effective as that bubbly, encouraging presence who's really simmering underneath.
Among key supporting players, Joni Adahl is a true stand-out as Grace Robbins with one pivotal scene that sets the foundation for the spiritual transformations to unfold. Jarrod Crooks, as the show's host, is also relatively low-key yet tremendously effective especially toward the film's end.
Tech credits are rock solid throughout with lensing by Andy Winters the best cinematography I've seen in one of Phillips's productions. While any micro-budgeted effort is going to have occasional concerns with lensing or sound, Weightier Matters is a strong effort and also features strong original music by Marcus Curtis.
It's a rare chance to check out a Phillips film before it has officially arrived on the festival circuit. In most cases, Phillips is wrapping up his festival run and getting ready for a streaming release when his film crosses The Independent Critic's desk. It'll be interesting to see just how far he can take Weightier Matters and how it's received among the nation's faith-based film fests.
For more information on Weightier Matters, check out the film's IMDB page linked to in the credits and watch for it at a festival near you in the coming months.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic