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"I CAN ONLY IMAGINE"
(2018) (J. Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A singer-songwriter recounts his life story that led him to write the most popular Christian music song in history.
PLOT:
It's 1985 and Bart Millard (BRODY ROSE) is an imaginative, music-loving boy growing up in Greenville, TX with his loving mother, Adele (TANYA CLARKE), and physically and emotionally abusive father, Arthur (DENNIS QUAID). Upon returning home from a week at church camp where he met Shannon (TAEGEN BURNS) -- who claimed they're destined to marry one day -- Bart is distressed to learn that his mother has abandoned him, leaving him alone with his father.

The story then jumps to 1991 when high school senior Bart (J. MICHAEL FINLEY) is trying to connect with his dad -- a former high school star himself -- through football. But a leg injury derails that, all of which unintentionally leads to Bart starring in the school theater production of "Oklahoma." Yet, while he's talented at singing, his father continues to be unsupportive of that or his boy's dreams, all of which means that upon graduation Bart leaves town, abandoning both his father and Shannon (MADELINE CARROLL), his girlfriend.

Six months later, Bart ends up volunteering to sing for a singer-less band and they begin touring, eventually drawing the attention of legendary producer Brickell (TRACE ADKINS) who isn't impressed by their covers, but is when Bart performs heartfelt songs. He eventually joins their band as their manager, leading to Bart meeting Christian singer Amy Grant (NICOLE DuPORT) and others. But he finds himself held back by unresolved issues with his father and thus returns home to confront them and him.

From that point on, and seeing the power of God in changing both his father and his view of him, Bart eventually finds inspiration to write a song that will become the most popular Christian recording of all time.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Have you ever been in a bad or even just uncomfortable situation where you pretty much end up losing all hope that things will ever change for the better to some degree? I have on multiple fronts, but since we're talking movies here, I'll narrow that down to my relationship with faith-based films.

Considering the fact that I see multiple ones each year, it's become ever so disheartening that few filmmakers of such films can deliver quality products. Sure, I realize they have smaller budgets and fewer resources than big studio productions, and I get that many are designed simply as evangelical tools first.

But just because the message is there doesn't mean the end cinematic result will be any good from a general movie-going perspective. Even Christian moviegoers seem to know this if the box office numbers are any indication. If you throw out Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and the three "Chronicles of Narnia" films, very few Christian-based movies have made any sort of noticeable box office impact.

Sure, they might make money as compared to their production and meager promotional costs. But considering the number of Christians in the U.S. alone (reportedly in the ballpark of 280 million) and the often heard complaint that no one is making movies they want to see (from a faith-based standpoint), not one such film (beyond those listed above) has grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office. Heck, if you remove the few that have made more than $50 million, the rest would be hard pressed to collectively generate as much as "Black Panther" has made on its own.

So, there's obviously a disconnect between potential audience and actual box office, and it has to boil down to Christian viewers wanting to see quality product while not necessarily looking for a Sunday sermon so blatantly served to them in a movie theater.

In that regard, "I Can Only Imagine" might just be what the doctor -- and pastor -- ordered. Sporting solid to terrific acting, high production values and a story that's engaging and emotionally effective, it's what I've been wanting for years out of such films and thankfully has finally been delivered.

Telling the story of the origins of the song of the same name -- released in 2001 by MercyMe and reportedly the top-selling Christian recording of all time -- the film comes from the hands of sibling filmmakers Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin who previously directed the faith-based films "October Baby," "Mom's Night Out" and "Woodlawn."

Working from a script that Jon penned with Brent McCorkle, it's easily their most accomplished work to date. Unexpectedly starting with ELO's catchy "Don't Get Me Down," it follows the trajectory of MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard from being a pre-teen (played by Brody Rose) up through high school and beyond (embodied by J. Michael Finley making his big screen debut after working on Broadway).

In all of those ages, he must contend with verbal, psychological and sometimes physical abuse at the hands of his father (Dennis Quaid) who could be a damaged poster child for Springsteen's "Glory Days," what with his as a high school football star now long behind him. With his dreams dashed sometime in the past for reasons never explained or explored, he's now a bitter man who doesn't want other dreams to flourish or at least lead his kinfolk down the path to disappointment and personal ruin as he experienced.

Bart eventually escapes from that domestic and familial torment and ends up as the lead singer for a well-below-the-radar band that nonetheless gets the attention of a veteran recording manager (Trace Adkins, lending gravitas and that great, gravelly voice to the proceedings). Along the way, Bart keeps trying to contact the girlfriend (Madeline Carroll) he so callously dumped at graduation, but while she says she prays for him, she otherwise wants no part of him.

But he's distracted anyway and must return home to confront his father and all of the wrongdoing he committed and scars he created, only to be taken aback by what's since become of his paternal monster. All of which eventually leads to the writing of the title song and Mallard and his band-mates being shot into the stratosphere of the Christian music world.

Resembling fellow actor Sean Austin, Finley creates a sympathetic and engaging character who viewers will root for to succeed. But it's Quaid who really shines, taking what could have been a one-note character and gives him enough nuance and then a still not perfected third act transformation that shows the man behind the monster.

Having had my own rough patches with my late dad, I'm a sucker for films like this (including my all-time favorite, "Field of Dreams" that I'll argue to my dying day is still one of the best non-religious faith films ever made). And this one had me hook, line and sinker, especially as things play out and dear old dad makes one last appearance in sort of a "FoD" way as Bart plays his new and soon-to-be signature tune.

I will say, having never heard the title song before, I wasn't that impressed, perhaps due to its real-world status and stats, not to mention the build-up to its creation and unveiling here. I was expecting something along the lines of "Amazing Grace" (also played here) or Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and -- no offense to its fans or those who say it saved their lives -- it's just not in the same category.

But that's just a minor complaint in what's otherwise a solid offering that's given me faith that a faith-based film can deliver something beyond a sermon. "I Can Only Imagine" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 15, 2018 / Posted March 16, 2018


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