Producers: Kevin Downes, Jon Erwin and Andrew Erwin Directors: Andrew and Jon Erwin Screenplay: Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn Cast: KJ Apa, Britt Robertson, Melissa Roxburgh, Gary Sinise, Shania Twain, Nathan Dean Parsons, Abigail Cowen, Reuben Dodd, Nicolas Bechtel and Cameron Arnett Distributor: Lionsgate
Filmmakers Andrew and Jon Erwin follow the template of their biggest previous faith-based hit “I Can Only Imagine” with their follow-up “I Still Believe”: take a popular Christian song and tell the inspirational story behind its composition. The earlier picture was based on MercyMe singer Bard Millard and his fraught relationship with his father; this one derives from singer Jeremy Camp’s romance with his first wife Melissa, drawn from the 2011 memoir he published about his life and marriage to her until her untimely death.
The movie begins with Camp’s (KJ Apa) departure for college from the Indiana home of his parents (Gary Sinise and Shania Tawain) and younger brothers (Ruben Dodd and Nicolas Bechtel); the guitar-loving kid has been drawn to the campus—actually Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, California—to pursue a singing career. He immediately searches out Jean-Luc (Nathan Dean Parsons), based on Jean-Luc LaJoie of The Kry, who’s already established in the field, to ask for advice, and the two quickly bond. Jean-Luc also introduces Jeremy to his friend Melissa (Britt Robertson), whom Jeremy had already noticed in the concert crowd. The two share an immediate connection.
There’s an obstacle in Melissa’s desire not to distress Jean-Luc, but eventually that’s overcome, and the two become a true couple. Unfortunately, Melissa falls ill with cancer, but Jeremy is determined to marry her nonetheless. A miraculous remission occurs and they wed, only to have the cancer return more virulent than ever. Melissa’s death—hardly a spoiler, in view of the story’s source—leads to Camp’s meeting his second wife Adrienne (Abigail Cowen), who has been uplifted by his music and its references to her. As is customary in such biographical dramas. We’re given glimpses of the actual Camp, Adrienne and their children in the closing credits.
“I Still Believe” looks good—Apa and Robertson are attractive young people (though, truth be told, his singing ability is not all that great) and the physical production is fine, with Kristopher Sean Kimlin’s cinematography lending everything a luminous glow and John Debney’s score adding to the aura. One might also mention Anna Redman’s costumes, which, in the later scenes, are pretty extravagant.
It’s in terms of narrative that “I Still Believe” has trouble. Fifty years ago cynical viewers were quick to dismiss the sappiness of “Love Story,” and this is basically just an updating of Erich Segal’s tearjerker with a Christian message added. Whether the religious component is sufficient to alleviate the overall saccharine nature of the material is another question. The target audience—those who found “I Can Only Imagine” inspiring—will probably have a similar reaction this time around, which should be more than enough to make it successful.
One can note a couple of oddities in the editing of Ben Smallbone and Parker Adams. The scenes of Jeremy outside the Camps’ Indiana home in winter, occurring at different times, look suspiciously similar, as if they were all shot at once. The subplot of the developmental problems of Jeremy’s brother Josh (Dodd) receives a good deal of attention early on, but then is almost completely dropped. And the fact that Jeremy’s father—played nicely by veteran Sinise, who brings a touch of class to the proceedings just as Dennis Quaid did to “I Can Only Imagine”—is a minister goes unmentioned until he suddenly presides over his son’s wedding.
Such hiccups probably won’t matter, however, to the believers who fill the seats (or virtual pews) of the auditoriums where “I Still Believe” plays. The film preaches to the choir, certainly, but its message about keeping the faith even through adversity—the age-old subject summarized in the question “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People”—is one that will resonate with them, and perhaps others as well.
This is a deeply manipulative but earnest faith-based tearjerker that will find its audience, no matter what critics might say.