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Two years ago, brothers Jon and Andrew Irwin directed a little film called I Can Only Imagine. The movie told the story of a Christian rock band and it made almost $90 million around the world while costing only about $7 million to make – one of the more impressive returns on investment in recent memory. And so, in the faith-based equivalent to getting Michael Bay to make another Transformers movie, we now have I Still Believe, a biopic about Christian rock singer Jeremy Camp, which aims to recapture the magic with a similar formula, mixing faith and music.
I Still Believe opens as Jeremy Camp (AJ Apa) heads off to college. The young aspiring musician almost immediately meets one of his musical heroes, Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons), leader of the band The Kry, and a girl, Melissa (Britt Robertson) that he just as quickly falls for. The former relationship helps boost Camp's professional aspirations, while the latter takes up his personal focus. I Still Believe is, ultimately, about the trials and tribulations of Jeremy and Melissa's relationship, and the importance that faith in God played in it, and while those looking for a strong message of faith will find it, those looking for a coherent movie will not.
I Still Believe is just never quite sure what it actually wants to be about.
First Jeremy must woo Melissa, and then, once that relationship has begun, it immediately faces hardships because of Melissa's desire to keep the relationship quiet. She's also friends with Jean-Luc, who maybe would like to be more than friends. The potential love triangle is then abandoned, and seemingly forgotten by everybody involved, without much actual on-screen resolution. For a while I Still Believe is about Jeremy's early struggles at a music career. Then it's about Melissa's health and the difficulties that come when she becomes ill and her life is in danger.
And with a title like I Still Believe, and knowing this is a very religious film, you might think the movie is about a crisis of faith, and it is, near the end, for about 90 seconds, and then it's over. With only a smashed guitar left as evidence.
I suppose it should be said at this point that, since there is clearly, "an audience" that movies like I Still Believe are made specifically for, I am not a member of that audience. The problem is that, if one were to simply remove the moments where the various characters invoke God by name from the film, the story of I Still Believe would remain mostly intact, and still a mess. If it were a comic book movie, the response to a bad review would likely be that this was a movie "made for the fans" and while that's one way to go, just as when that argument is used in pop culture focused movies, it implies the fans don't care or can't tell when the movie about their favorite character is bad.
The title I Still Believe implies a crisis of faith, but presents merely a tantrum of faith.
I Still Believe may be an accurate chronicling of the events in the life of Jeremy Camp, but as a piece of dramatic storytelling it is lacking. It jumps from one series of events to another. Entire plot threads are simply dropped with no explanation. The film tries to be both an "origin story" for the career of a musician and a relationship drama, but these two ideas, while happening simultaneously, are otherwise disconnected from each other almost entirely. One minute Jeremy Camp is recording his first demo in a studio, and the next he's playing sold out shows. I suppose if you were to read Camp's biography, which was the basis for the film, you would know what happened in between, but the movie doesn't bother to clue you in.
The meandering plot results in a nearly two-hour movie that feels longer than it is. There's an interesting story to be found here, and one that could have potentially appealed to any audience regardless of religious affiliation, or lack there of, but the good parts just get lost and aren't given nearly enough time to breath among the bits that are utterly unnecessary.
The place where I Still Believe's religious fascination hurts the movie most isn't in the endless references to God, it's the simple, nonthreatening nature of it all. All the performers are playing so wide-eyed and innocent that they barely feel real. The romance is so chaste that it lacks emotion. The film includes some serious issues, but is never willing to deal with them head on. Two young people in love staring death in the face sounds emotional and complicated and yet, not so much here. It's like the movie is afraid to deal with any real questions for faith for fear somebody in the audience might accidentally take the wrong lesson.
Gary Sinise and Shania Twain are here as well, not so you'd notice.
The closest the movie comes to even asking tough questions it's not going to try to answer is a monologue near the end from Gary Sinise – who plays Camp's father, and who clearly was hired for the one scene alone as he's basically absent from the rest of the movie (at least it's the best acting in the entire thing). On the other side of the coin you have Shania Twain as Camp's mother, who is in the movie about as often as Sinise, but without a big scene, making her appearance feel like the epitome of stunt casting.
As far as the leads go, AJ Apa and Britt Robertson are clearly playing with the deck they were handed. Apa does his own singing and he holds his own. Robertson is given all of about one moment on screen without her male co-star in the frame to show any real emotion, and it only succeeds in spotlighting what's missing from the rest of the story.
Clearly, making I Still Believe appeal to anybody beyond a specific audience was never expected or intended. It's not necessary to make the film a success. But that audience can still appreciate a good movie, and this just isn't one.