When it comes to movies, "faith-based" is a restrictive term that (fair or not) can immediately back a movie into a corner. Many will approach said movie with ironclad preconceptions, instantly dismissing it. Without question, closed-mindedness can play a part, with a person's personal animus toward religion guiding their judgment. But just as much blame can go to the movies themselves which often cater to the converted and preach so exclusively to the choir that they never stand a chance of penetrating through to a wider audience.
In recent years there's been a noticeable maturation of faith-based films. It's visible in both the quality of the filmmaking and the depth of storytelling. Not only are their characters becoming more rooted in the real world, they're demonstrating a more lived-in faith. And filmmakers are finding that they can still convey their faith-centered messages without pounding their pulpit or speaking to their audience in platitudes. Obviously these welcomed shifts don't guarantee great movies. But they do help these films to be seen and judged by a more equal standard.
The latest example is "Jesus Revolution" from co-directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle. Based on Greg Laurie and Ellen Vaughn's book of the same name, the movie tells of the Jesus Movement and its growth in Southern California during the early 1970s. The Jesus Movement was a Christian counterculture revolution that emerged in the late '60s and exploded across the country in the early '70s. Born out of the burgeoning hippie sub-culture, the movement wasn't just restricted to disillusioned flower children. Young people from around the country left their traditional church settings and joined fellow "Jesus Freaks" in the many communes along the West Coast.
Some within the Christian ranks have celebrated the Jesus Movement as the last great "spiritual awakening." Many have praised its use to draw young people; how its anti-establishment roots helped redefine church services; and how it gave birth to today's lucrative contemporary Christian music industry. Critics saw it as more of a cultural movement than a biblical one. And they noted its emphasis on signs and experience over doctrine and theology. There's certainly no doubting which side the movie lands on.
"Jesus Revolution" is taken from megachurch pastor and producer Greg Laurie's early experiences as a member of the Jesus Movement. It's a well-made, well-directed, and well-acted mixture of biographical, coming of age, and faith-based elements. The "based on a true revolution" story (written by Erwin and Jon Gunn) covers a lot of ground and does so by focusing on three key characters: Greg Laurie (played by Joel Courtney), Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), and Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie).
The film opens in 1968, a time when you couldn't turn on your radio or television without hearing about the growing peace-and-love hippie movement bursting out of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and across Southern California. It's here we meet a young Greg Laurie who lives in Newport Beach with his hard-drinking and hard-living mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). Greg gets a good taste of hippie culture after meeting and falling for a spirited and beautiful girl named Cathe (a terrific Anna Grace Barlow).
Meanwhile, Pastor Chuck Smith has watched his Costa Mesa church's numbers dwindle down to a faithful few. His first inclination is to blame the culture, specifically the shaggy-haired, barefoot, drugged-out hippies who are all over the news. But when Chuck meets a traveling hippie street-preacher named Lonnie Frisbee, he's immediately captivated by what he hears. He invites Lonnie and some of his Jesus-loving friends to his church. Of course it initially upsets Chuck's congregation who the movie paints as a bunch of old starched and stuffy squares. But soon the church is drawing hippie youth from all around, including Greg and Cathe.
The movie's blinding affection for the Jesus Movement ultimately shapes how it's portrayed. The filmmakers don't offer any real critique and there's certainly not much interest in a biblical assessment. It even comes through in their treatment of the real-life characters, most notably Frisbee. He was undoubtedly a central figure in the Jesus Movement but also a complicated one. The movie touches on some of his later missteps but dodges the more controversial parts of his life.
But despite its obvious lean, "Jesus Revolution" still makes for an diverting look at a more recent slice of America's spiritual and cultural history. The impressive production value, costume design, and needle-drops create a vibrant and authentic late '60s and early '70s atmosphere (although I did chuckle at a character in 1968 singing along with a song that actually came out in 1970). And there are moments that inspire -- spiritually and socially. There's a good chance it'll speak to those whose faith needs recharged or to those who simply need a reminder that people from different camps can come together in meaningful ways. Now there's a message that we certainly need today.
85 Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Jonathan Roumie, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Anna Grace Barlow, Nicholas Cirillo, Ally Ioannides, Julia Campbell, Nic Bishop, Jolie Jenkins, Jackson Robert Scott, Joel Courtney
Directors: Jon Ervin, Brent McCorkle
Runtime: 2 hours