‘I Can Only Imagine’ a Better-than-Average Faith Film

img_8425Dennis Quaid is such an under-appreciated gem, he deserves to be in so many more projects…

“I Can Only Imagine” tells the story behind the song of the same name, written by of Bart Millard, the lead singer of the band MercyMe. J. Michael Finley stars as Millard and Quaid as his abusive father, along with Madeline Carroll, Priscilla Shirer, Cloris Leachman and Trace Adkins. The Erwin Brothers direct.

Faith-based films get a bad rap in the movie community, due in large part to the fact many of them are not very good. The likes of Kirk Cameron and “God’s Not Dead” turn critics and non-believers alike off because they’re amateurishly assembled and pander to the choir. “I Can Only Imagine” still features some of what makes many of these films a chore to sit through (some wooden acting and clunky writing) however performances acting from its leads and a restrained delivery of its message make it one of the better faith-based films I’ve seen.

The film begins with a 10-year-old Bart Millard (Brody Rose) meeting Shannon (Taegen Burns) at summer camp. These first few scenes had me worried, because whoever wrote the script (which here is Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle) has never heard children talk. They use big words (pretty sure one of which was “exasperated”) and are way-too-mature for their age simply for the sake of the plot.

This section quickly passes however, and we get the 29-year-old Bart (Finley) playing a 17-year-old high schooler. Bart is forced to sign up for Glee club after a career-ending football injury and ends up starting in the production of “Oklahoma.” He ditches town after high school, leaving behind his abusive father and girlfriend (Carroll).

This all somewhat happens fast and we are rushed into Bart joining MercyMe and starting to tour. There’s not much to many characters, but everyone gives a performance that is either subtle or effective enough to make you not care. Finley has the vocal chords to belt to the back of the room and he isn’t too bad of an actor, either.

However the film’s best scenes (and intended tear-jerking section) come when Bart returns home to find his formally abusive father (Quaid) has found God and is now a mild-mannered soul. Stricken with cancer, the film (like its early scenes) rushes through the duo’s struggles to fix their long-broken relationship, but Quaid uses the material to give a stirring turn.

The production value is nothing awful nor inspired, as most every scene is filmed using a shot-reverse-shot angle and implements the same bright lighting style and color palette as typical faith films. There was one scene, however, that stuck out to me where two characters are talking at a kitchen table yet there is an echo (meaning it was likely shot on a sound stage). I doubt anyone but film buffs like me will notice, but it acts somewhat as a microcosm with what plagues many films like this: the content trumps production value.

But maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. “I Can Only Imagine” has its moments of inspiration and grief, some of which are genuine, others contrived. My audience was choking up during the entire third act and I’ll admit even I had a tickle in my throat, thanks largely to Quaid. If you’re a Christian then I’m sure you will be far more forgiving of the film’s flaws but I think even non-dedicated churchgoers will find enough uplift here to be worth a watch. Just know that this musical biopic is no “Straight Outta Compton,” for more reasons than one.

Critic’s Grade: B

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