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Sean Gunn

Michael Roark and Allison Paige in Bennett's War.
Sean Gunn

Movies

Half a lap short

Motocross racing flick Bennett’s War doesn’t carry a promising start to the finish line

Sex, violence, and action sell movie tickets. An inspirational theme can also draw viewers to theater seats for a 90-minute escape, but into nobler realms. The first half-hour of the new film Bennett’s War allows for some modest expectations, but thereafter settles for a generic story.

Marshall Bennett (Michael Roark) was once a champion motocross (motorcycle on dirt track) racer. He enlists in the Army and is assigned to the motorcycle unit. After sustaining serious wounds on patrol in Afghanistan, he receives a medical discharge. Marshall returns to California where he, his wife Sophie (Allison Paige), and their young child live with his father Cal (Trace Adkins) on Cal’s farm. Marshall goes to work repairing motorcycle engines at the shop of a family friend, Cyrus (Ali Afshar, one of the film’s producers). Marshall also tries to help around the farm, which is facing foreclosure.

Early on, the film is more a study of Marshall and Sophie’s marriage than of motorcycle racing. They disagree about Marshall’s future: He dreams of returning to the racetrack, but she fears further injury might prevent him from ever walking again. They talk it out, sensitive to the other’s welfare and aspirations.

Marshall also rejects inappropriate advances from female fans. Bennett’s War is far from a faith film, but Marshall and Sophie’s commitment to each other beautifully models God’s design for marriage. The film includes two brief scenes portraying marital intimacy but does so without either spouse removing clothes. 

By today’s standards, the film is almost modest, which is probably why its PG-13 rating makes no mention of the sensuality (including several shots focused on revealing clothing) but warns only of brief violence and some bad language. At least two dozen expletives suggest “much” should replace “some,” but the film deserves kudos for the near absence of blasphemies—possibly one.

In another unexpected show of respect for God, in one scene the young family, Cal, and Cyrus pray around the dinner table. “We haven’t done this for a while,” Sophie says. They join hands, close their eyes, and offer a heartfelt prayer of gratitude to God.

One other noble realm: The film portrays Marshall as a man and father committed to providing for his family. He trains for a return to the pro circuit yet labors diligently at his unglamorous repair job. But all the human dramas—marriage, farm, an injured Army comrade—are left in the dust by a shift in focus to high-rev laps around a racetrack.

The motocross scenes are impressive, though. Shots from stationary cameras and drones show the track’s hairpin turns and monstrous hills. Stones and dirt spray up into cameras mounted on handlebars and rear fenders. And racers, twisting their bikes in a midair dance, defy gravity in soaring, slow-motion jumps. 

Aficionados will appreciate the authenticity: Many of the racing sequences were shot at the Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, Calif., and motocross racer and Hollywood stuntman Tony Panterra appears in the film, playing himself.

Still, I think many viewers would also have appreciated a sustained focus on the human stories.

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Sundance Institute

Michelle Williams (left) and Julianne Moore
Sundance Institute

Movies

An A without an R

After the Wedding is a well-crafted, A-list drama without the expected sex scenes

It’s strange when you realize just how much the ever-increasing levels of sex, violence, and ugliness in modern entertainment have altered our experience of watching adult-targeted dramas. Take, for instance, the new indie, After the Wedding

A gender-reversed version of a 2006 Danish film, it weaves an intriguing mystery around two powerful, dynamic women, each alpha females of a sort, though in different spheres. 

Isobel (Michelle Williams) runs an orphanage in India. In a certain respect, she’s exactly what we picture when we imagine people who give their lives serving in impoverished regions. Her flowing palazzo pants, low-maintenance locks, and zen meditation practices give off a distinct air of Earth Mama. Yet she’s so much more than the cliché, chatting up corporate boards for “suitcases of money” and roaring, “I’m not here to teach you compassion!” like a mother bear when arrogant donors try to come between her and her children. Which is exactly what she thinks wealthy Theresa (Julianne Moore) is doing after she summons Isobel to New York and strong-arms her into staying until she’s ready to decide how much funding she wants to give Isobel’s charity.

Theresa, too, is no easy caricature. Her high-powered, demanding professional life doesn’t stop her from being a loving, engaged mom. Sure, she drives brutal bargains and snaps at her assistant, but she also reads her children bedtime stories, worries her sons are playing violent video games, and gets teary thinking about her beautiful daughter Grace’s upcoming marriage.

Still, Theresa isn’t the type to do anything without a purpose, especially a seemingly impulsive act like inviting Isobel to Grace’s wedding. When Isobel arrives and realizes she knows Theresa’s husband, Oscar (Billy Crudup), a renowned sculptor, we start to suspect what it might be, though the knowing makes the revelation no less riveting. The two women circle one another, each subtly trying to indict the other with suggestions that their life choices make them the more ideal version of womanhood.

I won’t spoil the mystery, except to say that as it unspools, creating gut-wrenching emotional stakes for all the characters, After the Wedding is as surprising as much for what isn’t there as for what is. Namely, no sex scenes, save Oscar sweetly romancing his wife when he finds her in the bathtub (no nudity or anything inappropriate is shown). 

So why did I keep steeling myself to see them? Because After the Wedding is clearly meant to be a prestige drama. It stars two critically acclaimed actresses at the top of their game. It centers on people with cultured, urban lives. It depicts two women grappling with a charged, unspoken rivalry. And these days, an A-list release like that—about marriage, money, and ambition—without significant R content is almost unheard of. If the film’s PG-13 rating didn’t also come with a fair amount of profanity, it would be quite the unicorn indeed.

Along with being brilliantly acted, well-paced, and intelligently crafted, After the Wedding is the rare film that explores tricky topics like class differences and femininity without feeling like it’s pandering. At first it seems the filmmakers want us to envy and resent Theresa’s 1 percenter status (playing with those conditioned expectations again!). But as we come to know her better, we remember that God blesses some with the ability to make wealth. And that wealth creates jobs and funds charities.

Further, we see a depiction of unplanned pregnancy where the only choice is how best to give the child life. “I just knew I couldn’t take care of you,” one character says of her choice not to be a mother, “and bringing you into the world was the best that I could do.” The frequent bad language notwithstanding, those are expectations upended in the most wonderful way.

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Affirm Films and Provident Films


Affirm Films and Provident Films

Movies

Overcomer

Warmth and grace make Overcomer a winner

Overcomer, the Kendrick Brothers’ new release, is billed “from the creators of War Room.” That 2015 film reached No. 1 in its second week at the box office. But look for the next movie that Alex and Stephen make to be marketed as “from the creators of Overcomer.” Genuine and compelling, Overcomer is the Kendricks’ best effort yet.

At a Christian school, basketball coach John Harrison (Alex Kendrick) finds himself coaching a cross-country team with only one participant, Hannah (Aryn Wright-Thompson), who has asthma. Hannah has lived with her grandmother (Denise Armstrong) since infancy, and she hides a sinful secret. Other characters also struggle with grief and sin. John prioritizes sports success over everything else. Thomas (Cameron Arnett), hospitalized and dying, regrets selfish choices that have hurt many people.

Overcomer doesn’t feel stretched thin, though, but ably handles the overlapping stories. Characters begin to confront their own shortcomings in the light of Biblical truth and with prayer. John and his wife Amy (Shari Rigby) often fall on their knees.

Overcomer (rated PG for thematic elements) notably frames the plot on four vital African American characters, including that of a delightful Wright-Thompson, who makes her acting debut. The light humor goes over well except for some of the recurring bits with a drama teacher, the film’s only awkward spots.

The most moving scene arrives not at a finish line but when a character comes to faith and discovers, while reading Ephesians 1 and 2, a liberating new identity in Christ. So, you’ll read critics pounding “Preachy!” from their newspaper pulpits. Sure, there are some “smoothly engineered epiphanies,” as one reviewer snickered. Believers agree, in fact, although we use terms like providence and grace. Another naysayer balked at the way the film “overtly expounds on God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice.” Warmly and authentically, but indeed it does.

So listen up! That Hollywood’s reviewers, patrons, or celebrities would be better off running life’s race without Jesus is a misjudgment some folks need to overcome.

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