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Writer/director Will Bakke (best known for the documentary Beware of Christians) has said that he doesn’t believe his latest movie, a satire titled Believe Me, should be billed as a Christian movie. His reason is that while Christian faith is the backdrop of the story, it doesn’t advance any agenda or include an altar call moment. And perhaps Bakke has a point as Believe Me managed what few Christian films that cross my desk do. It made me think about how I present my faith to the world. A lot.
For several weeks after first viewing a screener I found myself bringing up the movie in conversation, telling friends in a Bible study that I was looking forward to its Sept. 26 release so I could discuss it with them, and generally pondering how church-going audiences would receive the movie.
That’s a lot of mental real estate for a small-budget indie that is, at its most surface level, essentially a frat-boy caper comedy. Yet Believe Me deserves serious attention for attempting to break out of the faith-based film mold. Not all of its storytelling elements are executed as skillfully as I could have wished, yet the film as a whole is bold and original. Above all, it represents a challenge to Christian filmmakers to get real and take some risks.
The first third of Believe Me, which sets up the premise, plays out like many mainstream movies in this genre and represents its weakest point. Here we see stereotypical party-loving frat bros Sam (Alex Russell), Pierce (Miles Fisher), Tyler (Sinqua Walls), and Baker (Max Adler) come up with a plan to bilk gullible Christians out of their money by setting up a fake ministry. However, once the boys’ super-Christian stage personas land them a gig to go on tour with a real aid organization, the movie gets more specific and far more interesting.
Some viewers will likely take issue with the way Believe Me skewers evangelical culture, perhaps feeling it differs little from mainstream Hollywood’s ugly portraits of Christians in film. But it seems clear to me that Bakke’s exceedingly well-landed punches are being thrown from within the Body, as a challenge to think deeper about our faith and how we express it in our art, rather than as abusive jabs from without.
Bakke knows modern church style well enough to parody it accurately, something that can’t be said for most Hollywood depictions. Scenes where the boys school each other on how to posture their bodies during worship are particularly hilarious. For example, Sam dubs the arms-down-hands-open-at-the-sides stance “the gecko” and calls both-arms-fully-extended-upward-while-doing-tiny-calf-raises “the shawshank.” “You don’t want to be shawshanking in a room full of geckos,” he cautions. Similarly sidesplitting: his observation that Christians hate curse words but love cursing. It leads the boys to develop a line of “Christian” T-shirts emblazoned with the words “F Satan” that sell hugely.
Are Bakke and crew trying to have their cake and eat it too by scathingly sending up the modern church’s crusade to be “cool” while at the same time scoring cool points of their own by criticizing their brethren and using a bit of profanity? (The movie is rated PG-13 for dialogue that offers the barest suggestion of how many college kids talk to each other.)
Honestly, I don’t know. But I know this: We’ve done filmmaking via unoffending, paint-by-numbers legalism for years, and it hasn’t given us much in the way of vibrant storytelling. If followers of Christ care about the church having a worthy voice in the cinematic arts, we have to start giving our young filmmakers a little grace to err on the side of license now and then. It’s not possible with our fallen imaginations to walk that line perfectly, and Christian screenwriters and directors can’t test their skills in service of higher quality if they fear being drummed out of the support circle at the slightest hint of convention-breaking.
I give Bakke and crew credit for trying and, on most counts, succeeding to bring something new and entertaining to the table.