Cast: J. Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Carroll
Directors: Erwin Brothers
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes: The inspiring and unknown true story behind MercyMe’s beloved, chart topping song that brings ultimate hope to so many is a gripping reminder of the power of true forgiveness.
One of the main issues that movies based on religion have is they use religion as the only way for the protagonist to succeed or they choose not to show difficult issues in great detail for the sake of being family friendly. Fortunately for us, I Can Only Imagine avoids most of these problems and uses religion as a piece of the story and not as the entire story. Pair this with another strong performance by Dennis Quaid and we get a perfectly enjoyable movie even through some inexperienced lead acting a story that can be a little too preachy at times.
The story follows Bart Millard (Finley) as he grows up in a household with an abusive father Arthur(Quaid). Bart must go through his childhood and figure out what makes him happy while also avoiding the wrath of his father for various actions. Eventually, Arthur’s actions become too much for Bart and he leaves home with the intention of never coming back. As he begins his music career, he realizes the only way he will be successful is by going back and meeting with his father one more time to see if he is willing to make amends. Starting off with the story, I appreciated how the story revolved more on Bart’s life and less on how the power of religion will save him. While religion is a major part of his life, it is ultimately just that, a part. He has to go through the same struggles as millions of others who are not religious and the film effectively communicates that. For example, when Bart is trying to get a record deal, he has to deal with the reality that he may not be good enough to accomplish his dream. Regardless if you are the lead singer of MercyMe or Metallica, at some point you probably had those thoughts cross your mind, so it was nice to see more of an industry standpoint. Outside of that, the real star of the show has to be Quaid. Quaid elevates this film from one that could have been worse than mediocre to one that is above average. The emotions he displays, both the anger and abuse he shows his son, to the sadness and grief towards the end of the film show how powerful his range is and how one great actor can change the tone of an entire film.
Outside of those elements, the film does show some weak points. Looking directly at the lead, Finley has a background in theater performances, but this is his first feature film, and at times it shows. Some of his scenes come across as very campy and out of nowhere for what I can only assume is for comedic effect, but they come across awkwardly and the jokes do not always land. Looking more at the script, it can be very on-the-nose at points that made me roll my eyes. Bart’s grandmother Meemaw (Leachman) says the phrase, “mercy me,” multiple times before the band decides that will be their name. Maybe this is how the band name was actually picked, but to me it felt a lot like Will Smith’s, “we some kind of, suicide squad?” from Suicide Squad. If you wanted to add more of a comedic effect to the film there are other ways to do it. I am sure some great stories and moments were had on their tour bus, so why not focus on Bart’s relationship with the rest of the band? They only show us the really dramatic moments, but there was more than enough room for positive moments to come from their interactions.
Overall, I Can Only Imagine is a step in the right direction for faith-based films. With a story that actually makes you feel something and acting that is well founded and organized, this could be just what recent faith based movies have been missing for years. The real question is will studios take notice of what I Can Only Imagine has done correctly or will they go back to their targeted audience with the old ways. Only time will time, but for where we are now, I Can Only Imagine is a solid movie that can attract both Christians and non-Christians alike.
Overall Score: 6/10