Review: 'Believe Me' Takes Aim at Christian Culture
Most Christian movies are made with two audiences in mind.
The first and primary audience is the Christian market. The goal for this market is mostly one of affirmation. Some approximation of Scriptural truth is woven into the fabric of a morality tale about the rewards of belief and the wages of sin. It feels good to watch these kinds of stories because they often look the way we tell ourselves life is supposed to be. By the time the credits roll, the faithful have been comforted, the skeptical have been converted and the simplest Christian equations (conflict + faith = resolution) have been solved.
The second audience is the non-believing market. The idea for them is that this movie will serve as a conversion tool or, at least, a conversation starter. After seeing such a powerful display of truth on screen, goes the thinking, how could they help but be a little curious about how to get such happy endings to their own lives?
The Believe Me filmmakers would undoubtedly bristle at the term "Christian movie" but this film is, at least, a movie about Christians. In any case, it's been made with such a different idea about its intended audiences that it transcends the genre. It also has the good sense to take its story seriously. It doesn't need to be graded on any sort of faith-based curb. Believe Me is a good movie, period.
The film follows a quartet of college seniors who concoct a plan to raise money by forming a fake, charity:water-type nonprofit called Get Wells Soon, and shuffling all the donations they swindle into their college funds. Their "organization" attracts the notice of Cross Country, a Passion-esque touring ministry that thinks the guys could be their new stars.
Sam (Alex Russell) is the unofficial leader of the four, and though he isn't a Christian himself, he has a knack for prattling off the sort of faux-inspirational Christianese often heard at youth conventions. Everyone in Cross Country soon falls under his spell, including the comely Callie (Johanna Braddy). Sam and his friends master the fine art of Christian culture and pull in a king's ransom, leading to several slow-motion shots of the guys dancing around hotel rooms with dollar bills and champagne.
Believe Me plays a tricky game. Sam and his friends are the apparent protagonists, but their chicanery makes it hard to root for them (Russell's performance walks this line splendidly). The kindly staff of Cross Country seem like innocent victims at first, but when Believe Me starts to take aim at some of Christian culture's most sacred cows, their saintly facade begins to crumble. The Cross Country worship leader Gabriel (Zachary Knighton) is a Bon Jovi-aping glory hound whose songs only have the word "Jesus" in them. The group learns that low lighting and mood music can compensate for thin service material. The movie's best scene is a montage of them studying Christianisms, including what meals you are and are not expected to pray over before eating. It's very funny, and it's a bullseye.
The script is on its surest footing in these moments, and while this is ground that has been trod by Saved! back in 2004, that movie had not the benefit of Believe Me's insider knowledge.
That's heady stuff for any movie, and Believe Me occasionally stumbles when trying to balance its big ideas with its biting satire. Fortunately, director Will Bakke's slick direction generally compensates for the awkward shifts, and the script, which Bakke wrote with Michael B. Allen, earns extra points for avoiding easy conclusions.
That Believe Me is a technically proficient, smartly made film is a small wonder in a world where these types of movies generally look like they were shot on a student loan. That it manages some sharp performances is another plus (including a scene-stealing cameo by Nick Offerman). But the best thing about Believe Me is that it dares to morally and intellectually challenge its most obvious target market. That takes guts, and whatever the movie might lose in daring to challenge the status quo it gains in artistic integrity. Because while there are plenty of movies to willing to proclaim that God's not dead, Believe Me dares to ask what that really means.
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