Movie Review: A harsh childhood is redeemed by a song in “I Can Only Imagine”


“I Can Only Imagine” takes its title from a best-selling Christian pop ballad, and tells the story of how composer Bart Millard came to create it.

An anthemic profession of faith, the Christian pop superstar Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) wants to know how Bart (Broadway’s J. Michael Finley) came up with it.

“You didn’t write this song in ten minutes,” she pooh-poos in an exaggerated Georgia drawl. “It took a lifetime.”

That’s the framing device for this sluggish story of an unhappy, abusive childhood and the two-fisted Texan Daddy (Dennis Quaid) who tried to teach his dreaming, artsy son “Dreams don’t pay the bills. They just keep you from knowin’ what’s real.”

It’s a drab, emotionally flat film, despite having Quaid play an embittered version of the ex-jock dad of “Friday Night Lights,” a jerk who takes out his frustrations in life out on the wife we see leave him, and the little boy (Brody Rose) who learns, very early on, to fight back.

“Life hits me,” the old man growls, “I hit it back.”

The promising cast includes National Treasure Cloris Leachman, as “MeMaw,” the granny who always supported little Bart and whose favorite expression became the name of his grown up band, Mercy Me.” And Madeline Carroll of “Flipped” plays the high school sweetheart Bart leaves behind when he discovers his talent and takes it on the road.

We track through Bart’s high school life, trying to stay out of the way of his violent father, trying to impress him by playing football, and failing at that, getting discovered by the high school choir teacher who casts him as Curly in “Oklahoma.”

Securing the rights to sing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” wasn’t cheap. The producers sprung for songs by U2 and ELO to show young Bart’s love for music at an early age. But they couldn’t talk the real Grant or Michael W. Smith into playing themselves, showing their role in discovering the tune. Either they want to forget that stage in their lives, or they read the limp screenplay.

The film’s leading man — in boy and adult form — sorely lacks the charisma to carry a movie. The kid’s amateurism shows. And Finley’s a doughy, inexpressive lump in the middle of this generic “band tours its way to fame” tale married to a Christian redemption narrative.

Because Dad changes. Cancer will do that to a body.


The only real laugh in it — Finley playing a drunk scene is a real career-killer — comes that first time he takes the screen, as a guy plainly too old to be a bearded high school tight end. “You look like you’re 30,” a character cracks. As indeed he does. Not like a footballer, either.

The producing-directing Erwin Brothers of Alabam made a faith-based football movie (“Woodlawn”) and the comic miscarriage “Moms’ Night Out” and “October Baby.” Unlike a lot of faith-based filmmakers, they have little trouble attracting big names to flesh out their supporting casts. No Kurt Cameron. Country star Trace Adkins, the best thing in “Moms’ Night Out,” plays the band’s manager here.

But their filmmaking has no spark, no flair. Lifeless scene follows flat “travel” filler, with nothing light or urgent about any of it. This story, pointlessly delaying the moment when we finally hear the tune, didn’t offer them many possibilities to demonstrate that they know how to tug emotions, either.

If the song is strong enough, show it/let us hear it more than once. Ask Tom Hanks (“That Thing You Do”) about that. This one? Not exactly a spine-tingler, a tad uninspiring, as performed here.

And that goes for the movie, its lip-syncing (?) star and the rather winded “inspirational” story it tells.


MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements including some violence

Cast: J. Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid, Cloris Leachman, Brody Rose, Madeline Carroll

Credits:Directed byAndrew ErwinJon Erwin , script by Brent McCorkle, Jon Erwin, Alex Cramer. A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:50

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Movie Review: A harsh childhood is redeemed by a song in “I Can Only Imagine”

  1. James Penrod says:

    Harsh review. I do agree it played a little bit to the touring your way to fame. Before the real action started I leaned over and told my I’d seen this movie before. “Walk the Line”. Still the Father/Son redemption story had plenty of redemption to make up for some of the pitfalls of the early formula film. With a production budget of 7 million not a bad effort

    • Yeah, you can’t grade on the curve. “The Florida Project” is the greatest film in motion picture history by that measure. “Imagine” bored me, not to tears, because there’s no Crying in Criticism. But it’s a dead fish of a movie, even my man DQuaid underwhelmed. Watching the new St. Paul movie tonight, so fingers crossed.

  2. Dr. Roland Kern says:

    Yes, Yes, another Christian movie for you to hate. The real question is – do you like the song? Let me guess – not your thing.

    • Please see my reviews of “Risen,” “The Nativity Story,” “Soul Surfer” and “Miracles from Heaven,” for starters. And repent.

      • Dr. Roland Kern says:

        I repent. 😉 To be honest Mr. Moore – I enjoy your reviews, your responses, and that you have the same name as a cheezy Bond actor.

  3. Joel Kim says:

    I was going to post the same thing that Dr. Roland Kern posted- but I checked out your reviews of other Christian films and I relented (Thank you for replying back to his post btw). But my question- how do you like those other movies and take away from “The Case for Christ”? You might disagree with the conclusions, but c’mon! That was some great story telling, great acting, all the more based on note by note on a true story! Nothing weaved in but the facts of a man’s journey from atheism to belief. As a Christian filmmaker, it gave me hope that Christian movies can be done in an artful, winsome way.

    • As a journalist, the Got Rich on This con-man’s “case” would not pass any editor I have ever worked with, for starters. The acting was OK (Lead was weak, leading ladies were good), but the circular logic of it, once one has been a reporter, you can’t NOT see it.

  4. The child abuse had its edges rubbed off, the dad’s change was comically abrupt, Quaid was a bit one dimensional. The Young Patton Oswalt lead was a crushing bore, the first love rift was arbitrary and besides — matching Finley up with the delightful Carroll was a non-starter. And the tune as forgettable as Steve Perry’s post-Journey solo career. Aside from that…

    • Andy Peth says:

      90% of the dad’s change happened while Bart was away, unless you consider two complete readings of the Bible to be a quick process. That’s why it was so hard for Bart to accept when he came back. The child abuse wasn’t displayed–that is true–but did it have to be? I think modern movies make that a bit too necessary–you can work with or without it. As for Finley and Carroll, they happen to look a lot like the two people in real life. Bart was doughy and awkward; she was pretty and confident. But she saw something more in him. It’s called love, Roger–not always a model-meets-model cliché.

  5. Ed Ward says:

    Really harsh and frankly dishonest review (I read the lead is the actual singer, not lip-synced). Something obviously ticked you off about this movie or your day and you took it out on a beautifully shot, emotional film. To call this unemotional says more about you I think than the film. Audience ratings show once again how often critics are out of touch with the audiences that see them and love them. No one ever erected a statue to a critic.

    • He is not Bart Millard. Can you not read the credits? J. Michael Finley. “Audience ratings” are why you end up thinking “This time, Cracker Barrel’s going to be SPECIAL.”

      • Rich Swingle says:

        The jarring change in his father allows the audience to see months or years of spiritual transformation through the eyes of his son, who hasn’t seen him for all that time. The change is not believable to Bart, but for audiences who have seen life transformation through a relationship with Jesus Christ it’s quite believable.

        Cancer does not make life transformation less real. When my wife allowed Jesus Christ to take the reigns of her life one of her colleagues at a major weekly magazine said her transformed life was the first miracle she had ever seen.

        I think Ed Ward meant that Michael Finley, who played Jean Valjean on Broadway was actually singing, not lip synching as you implied.

        You may not have been moved, but I was weeping from start to finish. I was moved because it rang true to many life-transformation stories of family and personal friends, besides the fact that it’s a true story.

      • You’re pre-sold. I’m not. The song is piffle, BTW. “Reins.” And I’d have paid good money to see that. The weeping part.

      • timesfire says:

        LMAO. That might be the funniest response I’ve read in a long time. 🙂 – Good review. I generally dislike faith pics. They’re preachy and 2-dimensional, no matter who you get to act in them.

      • Stan Goldenberg says:

        Wow — emotionally flat? Uninspiring? You have to be kidding. And I think the almost 2M people who saw it this weekend would agree with you as well! This was a masterpiece of faiith-based film making. The problem with some of your comments is you are talking about a subject you know little about (or it certainly appears that way). I have seen lives changed (including my own) dramatically and quickly by an encounter with the living Christ. Ye s– some other changes take time — but lives can and do change! As someone else mentioned — the full change that Bart saw was over a period of time — but according to the story there was a pretty sharp turn at the beginning. “no spark, no flair” — wow! I speak to MANY people who have seen the film and it is apparent that this film hit the right note like few others have. As far not showing gruesome details of the abuse — FYI — films do NOT have to show every gritty detail of life to still get the story and message across.* Films of old did it quite well without a lot of the material that many current films feel obligated to show in graphic detail. Ad perhaps the film makers wanted a film that parents could actually bring their kids to without cringing. And thankfully — some kids or adults will identify to some of the trauma addressed in the film and find some help. I have seen dozens of faith-based films through the years, and this one really gets it right. Is it perfect? Well, neither are other films. But it gives a very real message (well messages) done in an entertaining, high quality, clean, uplifting, INSPIRING format that will appeal to a very large audience. Most know enough to ignore sour reviews like this and see it and be uplifted in some way. Let me say this also — maybe this is not an Academy Award winner, but it is certainly not “emotionally flat, uninspiring, no spark or flair” etc. I urge EVERYONE who wants to be encouraged and inspired to see this film!

  6. stillhopeforyou says:

    “It’s a drab, emotionally flat”
    Unfortunately, I think in choosing those words you give us an inadvertent peak into your own heart and soul. I feel sorry for you if you could not see or understand the message or were not touched in some way by it. There were many men in the theater where I watched the film that were wiping away tears at several points during the movie, including me. I’m not ashamed to say that at all. I was deeply touched. You use snark to mask your lack of emotional depth and understanding. You are only fooling yourself. The rest of us can see right through you. Try watching the movie again. This time, open your mind and more importantly, your heart. Good luck to you. I really mean that. I hope you can break down the emotional barriers you have built around yourself.

    • It’s “peek.” One of us is giving the other a “peek” inside pre-dispositions, that’s for sure. And that was a joke. Like the movie. And your limp defense of it. Here’s a link. 27 on Metacritic. Metacritic does not lie, or grade on the curve. Nor do I.

      • A. Nonnie Mous says:

        I’m sorry, but really? In no way was this movie unemotional. Totally. Because tonight, there was an entire theater, crying, from start to finish. When I want to describe something as unemotional, that’s the visual definition that comes to mind.

  7. stillhopeforyou says:

    I’ll use spell/grammar check next time so you won’t have to feel so superior. You send me a link that contains your own review in its aggregate score and then claim it validates your opinion? You’re kidding me, right? That’s like me pointing to the audience score as validation of mine. It’s a sign of weakness when you have to point somewhere else to attempt to affirm your own opinions. It demonstrates a lack of confidence and conviction in your own thoughts . I stand by my earlier statement. You lack the emotional depth and human compassion to understand a fairly straight forward message. I sincerely hope you find something to fill that emptiness.Peace be with you.

    • If you’re having inferiority complex issues, perhaps weighing why I would link to OTHER reviews, and point out that EVERY critic who doesn’t work for a faith-based/pandering website pounded the stuffing out of this movie, is in order before popping off in your Ignorant Certitude. That’s why Metacritic was linked. Look at other reviews, see the common complaints — weak lead, middling story, maudlin sentiments in a crummy script. And the tune it’s based on? Golly, I’m taking Bart at his word. The clumsy meter, weak rhyme scheme and programmatic music suggest “ten minutes” work — tops. By the way, being argumentative is not a sign of intelligence. It’s close-minded dogmatism. Reasoning with the reason-averse is a waste of time, so go have yourself another cry. Or argue with the other scores of critics who panned this, as we’re done here.

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