'I Still Believe': Film Review

Tears will be jerked, but you'll feel the machinations.
3/13/2020

KJ Apa and Britt Robertson star in the latest faith-based drama directed by the Erwin Brothers, based on the tragic real-life events that inspired singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp's titular hit song.

You can't blame the Erwin brothers for capitalizing on a hugely successful formula. The filmmakers' last faith-based film, 2018's I Can Only Imagine, was a surprise mainstream hit, grossing $83 million. Now they're back with another inspirational drama inspired by the true story behind a best-selling Christian pop song. The faithful will likely come out in droves again for I Still Believe, with teenage girls particularly likely to be attracted to its wholesome depiction of an ultimately tragic love story. 

Based on the book by Grammy-nominated Christian singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp, the film relates the story of his relationship with his first wife, Melissa, who died of cancer shortly after their wedding. When first seen, Jeremy (KJ Apa, Riverdale) is leaving his family in Indiana, including his supportive parents (Gary Sinise, Shania Twain) and his developmentally challenged younger brother (Reuben Dodd), to attend a Christian college in Southern California.

Almost immediately after arriving, he meets one of his idols, Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons, Roswell), the lead singer of a successful Christian rock band, who invites him to help out during their campus concert. Looking at the audience from backstage, Jeremy spots Melissa (Britt Robertson, A Dog's Purpose), rhapsodically singing along to the music. It's love at first sight, and he soon manages to awkwardly introduce himself. But while Melissa clearly returns his interest, her already close, if not romantic, relationship with Jean-Luc complicates any burgeoning relationship she might have with Jeremy.

That is, until Jeremy convinces her that their love is destiny and that God must surely want them to be together. Needless to say, it's a compelling argument for Melissa, who, while observing a display at a planetarium, is moved to announce, "The God of a trillion stars knows my name!"

Lines like that are indicative of the lack of subtlety in the screenplay by Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn, which tends to bathe everything in a rapturous glow matched by the gorgeous cinematography of Kristopher Sean Kimlin. Despite the extremely dramatic plot developments that occur, nothing seems to carry any real emotional weight. When Jean-Luc eventually finds out about the couple's romance, he seems momentarily hurt but immediately gets over it. And when Melissa is diagnosed with stage-3 ovarian cancer, Jeremy doesn't hesitate before proposing marriage.

As Melissa undergoes grueling surgeries and chemotherapy treatments (demurely, since she barely ever looks sick), Jeremy becomes more and more successful in his musical career. He also takes to asking his concert audiences to pray for Melissa, recounting the story of her struggles in between inspirational songs.

The prayers seem to work, as Melissa goes into remission and the couple enjoys a gorgeous beach wedding presided over by Jeremy's dad, a former pastor. But their happiness proves short-lived, as anyone familiar with the hit song that provided the film's title will likely already know.

To its credit, the pic wrestles with such issues as the difficulty of maintaining faith when tragedy strikes for no apparent reason; one of its moving scenes comes when a grief-stricken Jeremy asks his father to help him make some sense of it (Sinise, delivering a quietly understated performance, plays the scene beautifully). But more often than not, I Still Believe feels like the cinematic equivalent of the sort of Christian pop songs its main character performs, filled with soaring choruses and heavy-handed lyrics. Every emotion is telegraphed to the hilt, with results that feel more manipulative than affecting. The fact that it's a true story only partially mitigates its more cloying aspects.

Many audience members, of course, won't mind the manipulation at all, happy to be in thrall to the positive messages the film sends out. Not to mention that the highly attractive leads, who previously co-starred in A Dog's Purpose, are hugely appealing and display a winning chemistry that makes the central love story go down easily. 

Production company: Kingdom Story Company
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: KJ Apa, Britt Robertson, Shania Twain, Gary Sinise, Melissa Roxburgh, Nathan Dean, Abigail Cowen
Directors: The Erwin Brothers
Screenwriters: Jon Erwin, Jon Gunn
Producers: Kevin Downes, Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin
Executive producers: Jeremy Camp, Matt Balm, Bart Millard, Jon Gunn, Tony Young, Scott Lumpkin
Director of photography: Kristopher Sean Kimlin
Production designer: Joseph T. Garrity
Editors: Ben Smallbone, Parker Adams
Composer: John Debney
Costume designer: Anna Redmon
Casting: Beverly Holloway

Rated PG, 116 minutes