Directors: Andrew Erwin & Jon Erwin
Writers: Alex Cramer (story), Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Composer: Brent McCorkle
Starring: J. Michael Finley, Trace Adkins, Madeline Carroll, Dennis Quaid
Genre: Drama, Family, Christian
I Can Only Imagine originally wasn’t even on my radar. With an uninspiring film poster, it was listed on my local cinema chain’s “coming soon” page a few mouse scrolls down, underneath more prominent films such as Tomb Raider and Red Sparrow. It only came to my attention because a GUG reader on Facebook wondered why we didn’t include it for the month’s Boom, Bust, or Meh article (at the time it wasn’t slated for a national release which is why it wasn’t considered).
Curious as to what it was about, I watched the trailer. It instantly became obvious it was a Christian film. “Bart, you didn’t write this song in ten minutes. It took a lifetime,” a character says. Here we go, I thought. The pretentious, unsubtle preachy overtones that are characteristic of this genre; it simultaneously defines and ruins the films that fall into this category. “You know, I’ve never told anyone my story,” the main character replies. Ding ding! Yup! I know where this is going, I thought, and it’s not exactly great when captured on camera.
So I went on my way, not giving the film any further consideration. But then the whispers started… Murmurs that I Can Only Imagine is actually good. I was wary at first, but it seemed to be more than just the regular Christian bias towards these types of films this time around. My curiosity stirred once again. Maybe I had judged this ‘book’ by its cover too quickly? So I gave the movie a chance and bought a ticket… and boy, am I glad I did!
Violence/Scary Images: Domestic violence is a prominent topic in this movie. A man smashes a plate of food over another’s head. There is a story about whipping a boy with a belt. Characters scream at each other in anger. A man smashes and destroys his property as a way to deal with his anger. A character is injured whilst playing sports–they are shown lying on the ground in pain. An extremely sick character is shown at home and in hospital beds with nasal tubes.
Language/Crude Humor: No actual swear words, though a father demeans his son throughout a good portion of the film.
Drug/Alcohol References: None.
Spiritual Content: This is a Christian film based on the real-life story about MercyMe’s singer, Bart Millard, and what inspired his song, I Can Only Imagine. God is mentioned several times throughout the movie, whilst numerous characters are shown doing day-to-day Christian activities such as attending church, youth camps, and worship services.
Sexual Content: The film features a couple that is dating. At one point they kiss and embrace.
Other Negative Content: While there’s very little violence actually seen on camera, the film does focus heavily on the life of a boy that’s suffering from domestic abuse. It is therefore not suitable for young children. There is also some ghosting that occurs within a relationship. A character struggles taking criticism and reacts rudely in an immature defensive manner.
Positive Content: This film has extremely strong themes regarding forgiveness and redemption. It also touches on the importance of friendship and following one’s dreams, along with God’s involvement throughout one’s journey through life.
I Can Only Imagine is a simple story told well, that just so happens to fall within the much-maligned Christian film category. Yet it manages to shed the curses associated with the genre by focusing on developing rich characters. Their actions slowly unravel the film’s feel-good themes, giving the movie a naturalistic vibe, as opposed to directly preaching to the audience or telling them what to think. It’s a relief to watch such a film, considering the recently released Samson adaptation was a prime example of everything that’s wrong with the genre. In comparison, I Can Only Imagine skilfully dodges every potential pitfall, becoming a film that can be enjoyed by anyone.
It follows the life of a young Christian man named Bart, as he struggles with his violent home life, and later, his desire to produce a song that resonates with and inspires others. Effectively there are two hurdles that must be overcome in this film, and for a while, I Can Only Imagine feels like two separate narratives haphazardly patched together, but eventually, it manages to feel like a cohesive single entity.
This is achieved because both storylines share the central theme of forgiveness. It’s a topic that’s rarely explored in cinema. Just this year we’ve had Black Panther, Death Wish, Samson, Winchester, Red Sparrow, and even Ready Player One all at least touch on the theme of revenge or vengeance. So not only is it extremely refreshing to see the opposite for a change, but it’s also genuinely one of the best films to tackle the issue of forgiveness; its message is so strong that it’s like the proverbial light in the darkness. Make sure you’re stocked up on tissues for this one–I blubbered like a little baby throughout this film because it’s extraordinarily relatable.
It’s ironic that the movie’s secondary theme revolves around the importance of authenticity, particularly since this is what a lot of Christian films lack. Bart finds his career has stalled, and he is unable to progress to the next level unless he gets the guts to produce something from the heart–not something watered down or generic. The film, as a production, takes the same approach, adopting the lessons from its own screenplay. It doesn’t concern itself with injecting as much theology as possible into the script, as though a magic phrase will suddenly convert someone in the audience. Instead, it hunkers down and tries to depict what’s unique about this particular testimony. So don’t bring along your non-Christian friend, expecting them to suddenly understand all the inner-workings of God from this single film (you shouldn’t do that anyway, but essentially this movie has no real interest in proselytizing).
It confuses me that some have criticized this film for being too preachy when God is hardly mentioned during its runtime. It’s not even immediately obvious that MercyMe is a Christian band. It’s only when they perform in front of church youth groups does it become clear what genre of music they explore. The negative reviews this film has received tends to reflect what I’m going to coin as “atheist privilege”, as much as I loathe the latter term at times. When it comes to movies or stories in general, in the public sphere, an atheistic worldview is the default. Since atheism is simply a lack of belief, then any story that doesn’t need to delve into a character’s spiritual life could, therefore, be categorized as nontheistic.
So when a film like I Can Only Imagine comes along, it feels jarring. It can seem like it’s jamming religion down one’s throat when in reality all it’s doing is depicting a character that has developed their spiritual life. We watch as Bart gets ready to go to church, attends a youth camp, and ponders over God’s will. This isn’t a film that’s trying to preach, rather it’s simply depicting the typical lifestyle of millions of Americans, and it’s rather sad this type of story is not seen in such a non-judgemental way more often on the silver screen. It accomplishes two things: firstly, many Christians will find this film to be highly relatable since Bart’s regular day-to-day habits reflect our own, and secondly, since the story isn’t trying to ram in its theology, the message of forgiveness is more accessible and universal.
That’s not to say that the message of I Can Only Imagine will appeal to everyone. This particular story does have a habit of equating belief in God with success. It’s also important to remember that not everyone is delivered from domestic violence, and sometimes people don’t change. One could argue that this film is rather cliché in its presentation. However, the fact that it’s based off a true story legitimizes a lot of the narrative’s flaws. One can’t really be too upset with its upbeat tone when it’s merely reflecting what happened in real life. As mentioned before, this film does well in telling the story it has been given.
Dennis Quaid’s performance, in particular, helps to sidestep around some of the story’s more cliché elements. As a hardened father with anger issues, it could’ve been all too easy to play the character as one note, being the ‘evil’ dad that’s always nonsensically furious because, well, he’s just evil. Instead, Quaid delivers a wonderfully layered performance. Grunting through some dialogue that is admittedly on the nose at times, Quaid’s subtle performance reveals a variation of depression underneath all of the character’s hot-tempered outbursts. At no point does the audience believe that it’s all one-dimensional, and this character’s development greatly pays off by the time the film reaches its finale.
Some of the criticisms I’ve read about this film are valid, and not simply a knee-jerk reaction to the genre as a whole. I Can Only Imagine does overinflate its own self-importance. At times the titular song is compared to Amazing Grace in regards to its influence, and Bart is treated as though he has invented the best thing since music itself. As a Christian who didn’t grow up listening to MercyMe (or any in the genre, really) and knew nothing about the song until this film, I felt alienated and distanced by the constant glorification of this piece. It’s really not as important as the movie makes it out to be, which does detract from some of the narrative’s more serious messages.
Apart from this, there’s really not much more to dislike about this film. The pacing felt off during the childhood scenes, as though a lot of the pausing in the conversations had been edited out, making it seem like the young actors were performing a speed run. The film also lags slightly in the middle when it shifts gears and begins to establish the band portion of the story. It’s not a movie I would recommend for young viewers, considering so much of the narrative revolves around Bart’s violent home life and his struggles to overcome it.
Aside from these relatively minor issues, I Can Only Imagine is a nicely realized Christian tale. It’s a well-produced B-Grade film that boldly tackles the theme of forgiveness in a way that most people will find relatable on some level. The acting is strong, the music is great, and it’s an educational look into the formation of one of the biggest bands, MercyMe. There’s not much more that one could ask for in a biographical film.