An inspirational Christian music romance runs into the limitations common to the faith-based genre in “I Still Believe,” a bland tear-jerker that lacks the drama or commitment to wholly come off.
This true story of singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp’s “love of my life” ill-fated romance has warmth and moments of charm. It’s more “I Can Only Imagine” than “God’s Not Dead,” a concerted effort at presenting a positive message without anger or political victimhood. All that’s missing are the basics of good drama — conflict — and commitment and chemistry from its stars.
K.J. Apa from TV’s “Riverdale” plays young Camp, an Indiana lad who is smitten on sight when he spies pretty Melissa (Britt Robertson of TV’s “Girlboss” and “For the People”) at a concert when he arrives at Calvary Chapel Bible College in California.
How we get to that “meet cute” — which isn’t “cute” — sets the tone for the movie. It’s 1999 and Jeremy has to calm his special needs brother (Reuben Dodd) who is distraught at his leaving home. His struggling pastor dad (Gary Sinise) keeps a pizza joint delivery sign on top of the family’s ’80s AMC Eagle station wagon, but the parents (Shania Twain plays his mom) have managed to buy the kid a new guitar before he heads off.
That’s Jeremy’s ambition, “making it.” His “struggle” to achieve that consists of talking his way backstage at a concert The Kry are giving on campus, asking for advice from songwriter Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons), and becoming a roadie for the night.
That gives him instant entre to a musical sounding board, songwriting feedback, recording studio and…fame.
And it’s in between delivering guitars (“guitar tec:”) to Jean-Luc in mid-show that he spies the prettiest girl on campus, beaming in rapture at the music The Kry perform. As Jean-Luc says, “I write love songs to God.” With maybe a girl in mind as he does, he jokes.
Here’s where the conflict is dodged. Hunky Jean-Luc’s “girl in mind” is Melissa. This being a Bible college and Melissa being chaste, that makes for a slow attempted-wooing. And even though Jeremy doesn’t know that attraction when he flirts, he keeps after Melissa after he learns that news, continuing to take Jean-Luc’s advice and help as he goes after his girl. Cold.
The filmmaking Erwin Brothers (“I Can Only Imagine,” “Moms’ Night Out”) make little of this potential friction. The conflict is snuffed out with nary a spark or raised voice.
There’s no struggle for the hero “make it” either.
That leaves the only spark in the movie the tepid romance between the leads, and the only conflict in the movie the cancer that hits Melissa shortly after their almost-cute “date/NOT a date” dating life debate has been settled.
Kapa does his own singing in “I Still Believe,” a big plus as he covers both Camp’s songs and others from the Christian pop canon, such as a beach campfire rendition of “Find Me in the River.”
His acting is a bit soap-opera-ish — constantly running his fingers through his hair in anguish, flirtation or whatever. He and Robertson have an onscreen attraction that is wholly dictated by the script and never believable. It’s more a “non-repulsion” than attraction.
Robertson’s commitment to the part doesn’t include ever, for one second, looking the least bit sick. A bandana covers the scalp she chose not to shave for the part, and fools no one. Still, she is credible as a true believer, sharing her passion for the cosmos in a planetarium scene – “God is so infinitely vast…and he knows MY NAME!”
The message here is soft-peddled, with only “Hasten the day” — Jean-Luc’s devotional motto, an ethos of “hastening Jesus’ return” — and debates of what Melissa meeting Jeremy and later developing cancer means for “our destiny.”
Jeremy is smooth. He works God into his come-on.
“God wants us to run for it, not away from it!”
The title tune has a potent message — maintaining faith when “proof” it pays off isn’t there — and a dull arrangement. The picture itself runs on past its climax, moist-eyed but never quite wrenching, no matter how long this is dragged out.
As with the Erwins’ “I Can Only Imagine,” there’s something to be said for a faith-based film that is soft-hearted and apolitical. But “I Still Believe” the Erwin Brothers aren’t growing as filmmakers, and won’t until they learn how to generate conflict, which is what it takes to create good drama.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material
Cast: K. J. Apa, Britt Robertson, Nathan Parsons, Shania Twain and Gary Sinise
Credits: Directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, script by Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn. A Lionsgate release.