I Can Only Imagine is a biopic about the singer/songwriter Bart Millard who is the lead singer of Mercy Me and penned the #1 hit song of the same name as the movie. It is an uneven presentation of a solid story with some good moments after the opening.
Yes. I could have made the title or tag-line a joke about how I can only imagine what the movie could have been if it were done better. I’ve saved those for the rest of my review and I didn’t want to overuse it more than the song was overplayed on the radio when it was first released. So first things first, I have been jaded and disappointed with a number of faith-based films in the past but there really have been some highlights out there. The Passion of the Christ still sits high as a beacon of hope for films based on the Christian faith. It transcended genre and was inherently its own thing that had never been done quite the same before or since. There are some other solid choices but most end up with something you wish was better. Take the Left Behind series with Kirk Cameron and the reboot with Nicholas Cage as an example of good source material that just doesn’t rise above the quality of a made for Hallmark movie. I would like to say they have cracked the glass ceiling of these types of endeavors but I can’t. I was expecting to say this was exactly like the other failed attempts at good film making but I can’t say that either.
I can only imagine most audiences seeing this as 2/3’s of a good film because that is how I feel. Die-hards and people who only watch movies of this type will probably grade it higher than that, but for the average movie goer it won’t be all, “Mercy me! That was a good film from beginning to end.” See what I did there? They do that a lot in the movie. So be prepared to either laugh-off their campy foreshadowing grandma whenever she enters the scene or just groan with me here. Truly, though, I think if you can make it through the initial 1/3 that deals with Bart Millard’s childhood you will start to settle in and get to see some good “based on a true story” style cinema.
I was thrown off so much by the poor editing at the beginning I began to think Dennis Quaid had lost his acting abilities altogether. But as soon as Bart meets his band mates for the first time I felt like there was genuine chemistry on the screen. The most egregious error seems to be their entire structure for the film is based around two disparate presentations. The movie opens with an interview style set up where we would expect some voice over and flash back scenes that eventually lead up to the present. Then it shows us those flashbacks as one long slog with jarring cuts and jumps in time and events that made me feel like I really could have used some voice over to smooth out these transitions. I’m all for hard and crazy cuts as in Edgar Wright’s work in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but these did not accomplish anything that helped the story. It felt more like I was seeing chunks of storyboard that they meant to fill in the gaps later but never got around to even in the editing room.
Hello. I am Shannon, a girl in the same shot as you and I feel like we will get married someday.
Hello. I am your new best friend character, let’s do this thing that you’ll remember later.
Now they’re in high school, suddenly he’s on the football team, let’s have a sad scene and then let’s have a funny quip scene.
The whole sequence feels like cherry picked emotional elements with no connective tissue between them other than they exist in order on the same timeline. Actually, that would have been a better transition too. Maybe they could have had an animated image of Bart’s timeline and just jumped from bullet point to bullet point like a karaoke ball and lyrics. Hey! It would even be kind of thematic!
This first 1/3 also suffers from unnecessary elements in the story. Not to be sexist, or maybe to be more feminist, but they give the women in this story nothing to do and no real reason to be there other than they were in Bart’s life. We get to see Bart’s mother for a brief moment here at the beginning but if we were shown his life after her leaving I don’t think the story would have been less for it. Also his girlfriend that he meets early on is not much more than set dressing. She serves as a pit stop in the overall story a few times, but there isn’t much there to justify her presence that couldn’t have been done some other way.
Ok. Now imagine a good movie taking place right after that. Not a great one, but pretty solid. Like I said before the first scene with the band makes it feel like you are seeing a finished movie you can start sitting back and enjoying. The band manager that comes later is also a high point with good delivery and believable reactions. At this point some of the flashbacks actually come into play and they make Dennis Quaid’s performances from earlier look SO much better, and his scenes here feel more grounded. There is a caveat to those flashbacks too, unfortunately, where they sometimes mixed in reveals with the flashbacks that made me think the editors took shifts and forgot to tell the next person in line what they had cut out earlier. The only dark spots on the acting from this point on were a moment when Bart has to be angry at his dad and basically call him a monster and the actor just can’t seem to believe Dennis Quaid is a monster, but I’ll forgive him that because I couldn’t either if it was my job. The other dark spots are the Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant characters. J. Michael Finley, Bart, does a good job treating them like royalty, but they have trouble receiving it and delivering some of their mediocre lines. I know, I’m dragging this latter part of the film through the mud here but just one more thing. During the scene everyone knows is going to happen at some point, he’s writing the iconic song, I found especially blah. He looks through this journal they’ve shown him writing in as he gears up for his comeback moment and suddenly finds that he has magically been writing, “Imagine” and “I can only imagine” all over the margins of all these pages we haven’t even seen up to this point. Then he looks up and says God has made his point clear. No build up, no bread crumbs and no love for this scene from me.
Again I want to reiterate that the last 2/3’s is good. This is one of the few times I’ve seen a Christian character arc that seemed fairly genuine and not forced or white-washed. Bart is allowed to be shown not making the best choice right away, and even not having him pray and magically do the right thing immediately afterwards. Actually the camera work is good from start to finish too, but the editing and style choices throughout brought it down a notch or two overall. So I’d like to extend a bit of constructive criticism to any people endeavoring to create another film in the faith-based category.
- Never, ever, use the “touched by an angel” backlighting. There are a million other things you can do in one of those situations, and it can even be a less is more scenario which I think would have been perfect for this film in particular. If you have enough other elements cluing us in as to what kind of a scene this is we don’t need the “holy glow” effect.
- Tone down the smoky interior with beams of light through the windows. It’s just not necessary. If your character is: trapped in the bottom of a pirate ship, or they are in a dusty attic looking for the Declaration of Independence in an old trunk or they wake up in a jungle hut the go for it; but otherwise it just looks forced. In this case it looked like there was a fog machine set to low in offices and people’s homes, so again less can be more.
- Now this is only for I Can Only Imagine. A sweeping shot is great and all but remember what I said about “less is more” previously? I got dizzy in your 2D movie with your camera focusing on a stationary figure. If that was the goal I don’t see why, but if not you get my point.
I don’t want to sound like I hated the movie; there were definitely some strong and positive moments that were scattered throughout that made it fine to watch, if not particularly enjoyable all the way through. Overall, it was better than I expected of a faith-based movie—but that’s the problem; why can’t I expect more? I can only imagine what good could come of a string of movies in this category that picked up steam like the MCU. Or even a production company and director that you could count on to deliver solid entertainment consistently whatever genre or sub-genre they were working with. I can only imagine what kind of message would spread if a movie like this was as popular in theaters as the song was on radio stations. I can only imagine what it would look like for this to be a step in the right direction and for the next film this director works on to take constructive criticism like I’ve laid out and built upon it. I can only imagine how good it would have been if the production team had actually gone over the film a few more times in post before releasing it. And I can only imagine a day when I won’t have reservations about going to see the next faith-based movie.