|Synopsis||A chance meeting between a straight-laced pastor and a hippie creates the spark of the largest religious revival in American history.|
|Release Date||February 24, 2023 (United States)|
|Directing||Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle|
|Writing||Jon Gunn, Jon Erwin|
|Starring||Joel Courtney, Jonathan Roumie, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Anna Grace Barlow, Kelsey Grammer|
Hollywood director Howard Hawks—who made films like Rio Bravo and Red River—had a famous quip about good films, that they’re comprised of “three great scenes and no bad ones.” This is worth noting because it must be said that the average movie coming out of the faith-based film-industrial complex consistently manages to accomplish the opposite: a few decent scenes and a multitude of bad ones.
I make no excuses for the fact that I’ve been particularly harsh against the “Christian” film genre in the past, and I maintain that acrimony. Low-budget Christian films like Facing The Giants, Fireproof, and God’s NOT Dead have been the laughingstock of the film world for over a decade, not because they’re Christian but because they’re not good films.
There are hundreds of examples of great works of religious filmmaking—Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Flowers of St. Francis, Silence, A Hidden Life, Hacksaw Ridge, A Serious Man, Babette’s Feast, the collective works of Robert Bresson, etc—and yet the genre that calls itself “Christian” has deeply failed to meaningfully connect to the culture at a time when the disconnect between mainstream secular culture and Christianity has never been deeper. Christians have a duty in our culture to do better, lest we forget, “To whom much is given, much will be required,” (Luke 12:48)
It’s appropriate then that the newest example in the genre attacks this very subject so directly. As one of my friends put it, it’s surprisingly not bad!
Violence/Scary Images: A character nearly overdoses on drugs. A character nearly crashes a car.
Language/Crude Humor: None.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Drug abuse is a prominent theme in the film, with characters taking large amounts of drugs and nearly dying of overdoses.
Spiritual Content: The film is explicitly Christian, following religious characters attempting to start a religious revival.
Other Negative Themes: None.
Positive Content: Themes of faithful service, reaching out to others in need, and allowing God to work imperfectly through us.
When someone goes into a “Christian” film, it likely draws expectations about specific tropes that have come to define the genre. A group of characters are introduced who face very normal but serious trials—marital infidelity, trust issues, money issues, doubt, etc—and these characters are drawn into a scenario where their religious faith is tested. In that testing though, they find a means to turn to faith, finding the strength to overcome suffering and adversity while inspiring everyone around them to turn to Jesus.
In practice, this genre is rarely NOT a deeply sentimental and saccharine affair, and it doesn’t work. Most Christian films are written by pastors, good and Godly people, but those who aren’t called in their vocation to being artists telling complex stories that speak to the deeper and more challenging realities of life. It was much to my surprise then as I watched the newest example of this genre that the film actually started scratching the surface of more difficult questions and emotionally compelling characters.
Jesus Revolution is a dramatization of the real lives of three people—Chuck Smith, Lonnie Frisbee, and Greg Laurie—the founders of what would become the “Jesus Movement,” a Southern Californian revival movement from 1967 to 1972 that sparked a massive charismatic and evangelical youth movement in the United States, primarily through outreach to estranged hippies and religious dissidents who were alienated from the more conservative elements of Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism. Much of modern Contemporary Christianity is a direct descendant of their unusual ministry.
The story follows a chance meeting between Chuck and Lonnie. The former is the straight-laced pastor for a small Bible Church, watching the world fall apart under the weight of the 1960s counter-culture, with rioting, wars, rampant drug use, and mass secularization throwing the world into chaos. Lonnie Frisbee is a born-again hippie from San Fransico who happens to cross Chuck’s path but genuinely connects with the older fuddy-duddy by explaining how his conversion helped him break his drug addiction and connect to a population of young people starving for meaning and faith.
Against the wishes of his more conservative congregation members, Chuck opens the doors of his small chapel to a rapidly growing population of hippies and turns Lonnie into a self-styled charismatic prophet who claims to see visions, perform miracles, and heals people’s infirmities.
I can’t think of the last time I watched a “Christian” film and felt tension or conflict in the events of the film, but the film actually does manage moments of dramatic clarity and meaningful characterization. It doesn’t hold it forever, as it loses steam occasionally and abruptly changes direction a handful of times. There are plenty of things that come across as cold or don’t work in execution, but the fact the rubber meets the road and makes the good scenes work is a pleasant surprise.
A lot of that strength just comes down to the power of the acting. Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) lends a lot of gravitas to a character that could otherwise come across as stilted if it weren’t for this actor’s ability to capture the emotions beneath the surface of the man. Joel Courtney (Super 8, The Kissing Booth) similarly does surprising work as the youngest character in the film, showcasing the film’s most extensive character arc from a desperate drug addict to a world-renowned evangelical pastor, who wrote the book the movie is adapted from.
The standout performance is The Chosen‘s Jonathan Roumie as the standout role of Lonnie Frisbee, playing a surprisingly nuanced character that ends up having to deal with some unexpected ego issues and emotional turmoil as the plot unfolds, nearly jeopardizing the Jesus Movement in the process. Roumie has made quite the career for himself in the past four years, starring in the largest breakout Christian project of the decade and more recently becoming the face of the Hallow Catholic prayer app.
It’s not like making the leap from playing Jesus to a hippie is the most radical jump in the world in terms of turning in a performance, but the role of Lonnie does actually push him in directions that The Chosen doesn’t. It also brings a lot of interesting emotional baggage into the performance, particularly for fans of the show who associate his face with that of their Messiah—underscoring the film’s most potent theme.
It’s clear that releasing a film like Jesus Revolution in the year of our Lord 2023 isn’t a fluke, as it reflects a group of filmmakers very clearly reading the room. As I’m writing this, the Church of England AND The United Methodist Church are actively in the process of schism over political differences. The world is facing serious problems, from a horrific war in Ukraine to poverty, political violence, and hatred between countrymen that rivals anytime in modern history.
In all this, Christianity is mostly absent—culturally weak and prone to infighting between traditionalist and progressive factions who refuse to coexist at the altar of Christ. Jesus Revolution is very much a call to action, as are all “Christian” films, but the movie is also smart enough to recognize the wrinkles in the process of what it is saying. This is very much a movie about flawed, broken people who find themselves as the face of a movement far greater than themselves, but the film also depicts the origins of many elements of faith that have metastasized into problems for the Church—megachurch culture, chick tracks, etc.
Jesus Revolution is still a “Christian” film in all that it means. There’s a broadly predictable structure, obvious moral lessons, melodramatic acting, and characters expositing the moral of whatever story they’re telling. But this film, more than other films in its genre, does actually hit the high notes and capture moments of sincere meaning and emotion. There is a lot more going for it than I would’ve expected, even if it is flawed.
+ Some moments of drama
+ Surprisingly effective themes and ideas
- Cliche tropes and structure
- Some weak character chemistry and melodramatic acting
- Overly exposited themes and dialogue
The Bottom Line
Jesus Revolution bucks the trends of contemporary Christian films through great performances and surprising strong writing, to tell a story that feels important for this moment.