Courtesy of Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions
Please forgive the pun, but I tend to avoid faith based movies: religiously. It’s not that I hate the message, have a black hole where my heart should be, or cold blooded. In fact the opposite, (although I didn’t like “Zootopia” as much as the rest of the world, so I might qualify in some of those elite categories.) I avoid these movies because they have a tendency to alienate their audiences, or manipulate them with preachy messages without thinking about those on the outside. It’s movies like “God’s Not Dead,” or movies with Kirk Cameron’s name on it that gave me a sinking feeling walking into a film like “I Can Only Imagine.” However, being an open minded critic, I like to give every movie a fair shake and, while far from perfect, “Imagine” manages to just squeak its message through the cracks without being overly dramatic.
Based on the true life of Bart Millard and his chart topping, triple platinum, song which lends its name to the title of this film. Sung by the Christian band MercyMe, the acclaimed tuned wound up becoming the highest selling Christian song in history. Seeing the potential to crack into those numbers, Hollywood has come knocking, and with $40 million in change, the film’s already become a massive hit (the budget was less than $10 million) - and so it sparked my interest. At first, the movie inadvertently checks every weepy box that follows inspirational true stories. Including the small town values of Greenville Texas circa 1985 where Millard (J. Michael Finley) grew up under the strict rule of his abusive father (Dennis Quaid delivering a cheesy, overacted performance early on, only to grow on you in later scenes.)
This is all setup for when Millard is destined to grow up and become a huge star - but to get there is harder than you think. If you can get over that Finley is pushing 37 and attempting to play a high schooler, than the bland and routinely flat troops about overcoming adversity will feel extremely familiar. “Imagine” doesn’t start to find it’s stride and footing until the shift of the second act when Trace Adkins comes in the picture as a sporting band manager that sees potential in the commercial viability of MercyMe. Somehow, that’s where the movie started to win me over, when the film started to root it’s message deeper and I didn’t feel pressured to play along.
It also helps that Finley can belt it with the best of them, despite some poorly dubbed lip singing, and the actor getting lost in the soulfulness of the songs. There was one point where the band is playing a gig in front of high powered studio executives, and then it cuts away. They say “that was the best we ever played” and I shouted “we didn’t even get to see it!” Those frustrations were few and far between, but they lingered over me - and the movie takes it’s time getting to the finale we’re all anticipating (thankfully, that scene delivers the way it should.) The arch with Millard’s father is a relative driving factor behind the films focal points, and Quaid (who gets cast as a father like this in every movie) manages to bring it down to more believable standards late in the third act. Likewise for Finley who is amicable enough to root for in his first main stage role.
It’s a relief to me that “I Can Only Imagine” is halfway decent, and doesn’t preach a message to those on the fence. I doubt this movie will start a trend, as the motives typically lie in what investors and specific audiences taste are inclined with. I wouldn't call myself converted on my views of these films, but maybe I do have a heart after all.
Rated PG for Thematic elements including some violence
Runtime: 1hr and 50 minutes