[Screen It]


(2016) (Melissa Joan Hart, Jesse Metcalfe) (PG)

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Drama: A high school history teacher gets into trouble and eventually goes to court over discussing Jesus in her class.
Grace Wesley (MELISSA JOAN HART) is a high school history teacher who's taking care of her elderly grandfather, Walter (PAT BOONE), when not teaching students such as Brooke Thawley (HAYLEY ORRANTIA). She's a junior who's concerned that her free-thinker parents, Richard (CAREY SCOTT) and Catherine (MARIA CANALS-BARRERA), have moved on too quickly following the accidental death of Brooke's brother six months ago.

When Grace answers a question Brooke has in class about whether one could compare Jesus to Martin Luther King, Jr. and briefly opines about Christianity, another student texts out a comment about the exchange. That not only lands Grace in hot water with the teachers' union rep, Mrs. Rizzo (NATALIE CANERDAY), and Principal Kinney (ROBIN GIVENS), but also the school board that threatens to fire her.

Her lawyer, Tom Endler (JESSE METCALFE), fresh from the public defender's office and never having worked on a case like this, isn't a believer like Grace, but hates to lose. When she refuses to admit any sort of guilt, the case is sent to court under the watchful eye of Judge Robert Stennis (ERNIE HUDSON), where Tom ends up battling prosecutor Peter Kane (RAY WISE) who's determined not only to defeat Grace, but also God.

Among those called to serve on the jury is Pastor Dave (DAVID A.R. WHITE) who -- when not answering questions about God and Christ from exchange student Martin Yip (PAUL KWO) -- has his missionary pastor friend Rev. Jude (BENJAMIN ONYANGO) stand in for him. At the same time, blogger Amy Ryan (TRISHA LaFACHE) must contend with questioning her faith now that she's cancer free and seemingly no longer needs Jesus on her side.

As the case wears on, Kane does everything in his power to prove Grace's guilt, all while Tom tries to make a case about the validity of Jesus as well as the inability to separate a person from their faith in the workplace.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Unless one's talking about a cinematic offering designed from the get-go as a trilogy or a continuing series of adaptations of a collection of novels, the vast majority of sequels are cash grabs rather than artistic endeavors. Which is fine from a business standpoint, because movies and movie studios need to make money in order to remain operational, although I wish the art was of equal importance to the need to fill the cinematic coffers.

Not surprisingly, most sequels return all or, at least, most of their characters for more storytelling, all to appease viewers who want to see more of them. And of those, the vast majority use the same performers for the same reason.

While "God's Not Dead 2" keeps the latter in mind, the major character from its predecessor -- 2014's "God's Not Dead" -- along with a few supporting characters are nowhere to be seen. Yes, having succeeded at his philosophy class challenge to prove God's existence, college student Josh relinquishes the lead role and subsequent religious battle to high school history teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) who finds herself in a related, but decidedly different pickle.

Having answered a question wondering about the similarities between Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. posed in class by one of her students, Brooke (Hayley Orrantia), the instructor suddenly finds herself in hot water. That's not only from her union rep (Natalie Canderday), principal (Robin Givens), and the school board, but also ultimately an evil prosecuting attorney (Ray Wise) who's determined to destroy both her and God in one court trial.

At the same time, returning pastor Dave (David A.R. White) finds himself on the jury when not interacting with his missionary pastor friend, Rev. Jude (Benjamin Onyango), or answering more questions about God and Jesus from Chinese exchange student Martin (Paul Kwo). And Trisha Lafache returns as an Internet blogger now free of cancer, but suddenly questioning her faith now that she's no longer in imminent danger.

But the majority of the film -- directed by Harold Cronk who returns from the first pic and works from a script by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon who likewise resume their duties -- focuses on Grace's travails and the work of her non-believing green lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) who doesn't like to lose but has no real game plan in terms of how to defend her.

Like before, the film plays off the belief that God and specifically Jesus are under ever-increasing attack by secular forces. Accordingly, those who agree with that will likely enjoy the Grace vs. Goliath storyline where our heroine stands her ground, everyone's faith is tested, and the three men who singer Don McClean admires the most come out victorious.

While those proceedings offer some moderately intriguing arguments about Jesus, faith, and religion in the workplace, there's little to no nuance in terms of the antagonists, specifically Wise as the prosecuting attorney. He's written and played so rabid-eyed evil that you half imagine he and the rest on his side should be twirling their mustaches and letting out cackles every time they make their obvious and on-the-nose "let's destroy them" points.

That and the all-too-obvious storyline and eventual positive outcome fairly undermine what's being presented along with some moderately decent work by some (but not all) of the performers. Will the devout who believe they're under attack not care and lap all of this up? Absolutely, especially when the end credits reveal a number of legal proceedings that reportedly inspired this pic.

Will those who view such assertions of Christian persecution in America as fear-based, manipulative propaganda end up seeing the film in that same light? Most likely, especially since some of the related material -- including an out of the blue subplot where the late Fred Thompson shows up with news about preachers being served subpoenas to turn over transcripts of their sermons -- gets too heavy-handed.

Notwithstanding those opposing viewpoints, does the film work as a standalone drama? Somewhat, but some subplots featuring returning characters seem more like faith-reassuring filler than anything pivotal to the main story. That, the one-dimensional, nearly cartoonish antagonists and the fact that there's never any shade of doubt about what verdict the jury will deliver means the dramatic suspense remains flat. As a result, "God's Not Dead 2" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 25, 2016 / Posted April 1, 2016

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