My beef with many faith-based films is that they seem to be overly dramatic, even melodramatic at times, and too formulaic in their expression of faith. All the answers to life’s difficult problems get solved with an “Amen” and an acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord. Now, don’t get me wrong. I truly believe Jesus is Lord and say “Amen” very frequently. Fortunately, this trend in faith-based filmmaking seems to be shifting to a more real, lived faith. “I Can Only Imagine” is a good example of this shift.
Directed by brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin (“October Baby”), “I Can Only Imagine” shows the power of forgiveness through the real-life story of Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley), lead vocalist of the Christian band, MercyMe. Left with his abusive father, Arthur (Dennis Quaid) when his mother leaves the family, young Bart (Brody Rose) grows up trying to please his alcoholic Dad. Since Arthur’s only love is football, Bart plays football in high school, but an injury puts an end to that and forces Bart to find another pastime. Getting involved in the glee club as a tech, the teacher (Priscilla C. Shirer) overhears his amazing voice as Bart sings in the control room and casts him as the lead in the school’s production of “Oklahoma.”
After high school, he meets his future band mates and sets off on the road with MercyMe. They struggle like any new music group does but their manager tells Bart that to make truly great music he needs to confront the pain in his soul. Bart heads home to find Arthur a changed man but he’s not about to hand out forgiveness just because Daddy’s been listening to some preachers on the radio. Bart’s attempts to deal with his own feelings about his Dad get further complicated when he finds out Arthur has cancer.
J. Michael Finley, a newcomer to the big screen, was probably chosen to play Bart because of his obvious talent as a singer. His acting, although heartfelt, sometimes feels forced. Of course, I suppose it’s a bit intimidating to have your first acting job opposite a seasoned actor like Dennis Quaid. Quaid makes this film with his performance of the rough but open-to-grace Arthur.
Secular film critics tend towards negativity when reviewing faith-based films and their take on “I Can Only Imagine” is no different. I’m not sure why this is but I think some reviewers just don’t understand the hope found in following Christ and the stories of those who have embraced that hope. That someone can overcome the effects of child abuse and forgive their abuser seems unbelievable and out of the realm of possibility. But for those of us who have faith and believe in loving others as Jesus loves us, it is not only possible but truly healing.
Perhaps Bart’s road to healing didn’t happen exactly as it’s portrayed in the movie, but the success of the triple platinum song that came out that painful journey doesn’t lie. MercyMe’s song, “I Can Only Imagine,” first released in 2001, remains the best-selling Christian song to this day and continues to inspire countless people who follow Jesus, trusting in the redemption gained on the Cross, hoping to behold the face of God forever when life’s journey ends.