Last Friday, my wife, my kids, and settled down to enjoy our traditional Friday night family movie night. We’d ordered pizza (yes, you can do that in China) and got ready to watch Moms’ Night Out. I was nervous as I hit the play button, because I knew I would be writing a review of this film – continuing my series of reviews of films made by Christians – and I knew that the odds were stacked against me having very much positive to say. After all, am I not the blogger who wrote the highly critical article, “What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking“? I don’t like anything made by Christians, right?
So. My immediate thoughts after watching the credits roll?
This film couldn’t have been made by Christians.
It wasn’t preachy. It was acted well. It was genuinely funny. And the real kicker? I’d be happy to watch it with my friends who aren’t a part of the Christian subculture.
Is this truly the state of filmmaking from Christians, when we’re actually starting to make good films?
Maybe there’s hope after all?
The irony about how much I enjoyed Moms’ Night Out was how little the critics enjoyed it. After watching the film I looked up the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and was shocked to see that the film had a 18% fresh rating – with complaints about “archaic gender roles”, sexism (towards men), regressiveness, and overall blandness. As I read through the reviews, I began to sense that some of the complaints seemed to stem from the fact that this film was one of a slew of so-called “faith-based” films that were released this year, and it became obvious that some “faith-based fatigue” has started to set in.
With that in mind, I feel the need to critique the critics for a moment. I was stunned to see that so much of the negative criticism of the film stemmed from the filmmaker’s support of “traditional gender roles.” Further, I was angry that so many critics viewed portrayal of a stay-at-home-mom as regressive – writing about that choice (aren’t we supposed to celebrate choice?) in a belittling and negative manner.
Let me get this straight – if you have a film that portrays two working parents then it’s positive, but it’s somehow a negative to portray a home where the mom works at home. Okay, check. It’s progressive to have a film that shows two daddies, but it’s regressive to show a husband and wife in a committed relationship. Right. Got it. To truly wow the critics, try having a single parent, and you’ll have them on your side at once.
But feature a few traditional marriages that seem to be working?
Then you are obviously stuck in the 1950’s.
If that’s regressive, then sign me up.
But I digress. Critics only get it right when we agree with them, and anyway, I’m not here to write a critique of the critics. I’m here to review Moms’ Night Out. So, here we go.
What I liked about Moms’ Night Out.
1. The Casting
With a perfect combination of comic timing and vulnerability, Sarah Drew was fantastic playing stressed-out mom, Allyson. She succeeded in making this potentially irritating and shrill character into a character that I liked and found myself caring about. In fact, what I saw in Sarah in Moms’ Night Out leads me to believe that she would kill playing Lucille Ball if they ever decided to reboot I Love Lucy.
Having said that, let me make a quick note to the studios: please don’t ever decide to reboot I Love Lucy.
Back to the actors… Sean Astin did a great job as Allyson’s husband, Sean – and he reminded me specifically of a couple of incredibly busy dads who I know, who love their families, but also have chosen work that takes them out of the house for days at a time. I take issue with the critics who complained that the men in this film were incompetent, largely because of Sean Astin. Yes, he was overwhelmed with the kids when he took them out, but no more than Allyson had been at the start of the film. Why did the critics miss this? Everyone is overwhelmed and acting foolish in this film – men and women alike. It’s not reverse sexism at play, but thanks, critics, for looking for a reason to not like the movie.
Confession time: I had a big celebrity crush on Patricia Heaton when she was played Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond, so I was glad to see her back on the screen. She was well cast as the busy preacher’s wife, and she was funny while bringing a bit of maturity to the trio of moms who were having a night out.
The rest of the cast did a good job, including comic turns by Andrea Logan White as the third Mom, David Hunt as an expatriate Brit cabbie, Kevin Downes as Sean’s old friend (I actually wanted to see more of Kevin – he was an interesting but underdeveloped character), and a surprisingly well-acted performance by country singer Trace Atkins as Bones the tough-guy biker (Pinterest? Really? That was a laugh-out-loud moment for me).
2. The Writing
Typically, comedy in our “faith-based” films is awkward, goofy, and pedestrian – more like the efforts of some amateur improv troupe than serious attempts at humor in mainstream motion pictures. Our cinematic comedy usually feels like it was shoved into a bad dramatic storyline to offer comedic relief, and while the attempts may gets laughs, it’s usually not terribly smart.
The laughs in Moms’ Night Out were smart. Yes, there were the goofy moments (just about every scene with Marco), but the humor was overall well-written and acted, and as the anxiety of the night built, so did the laughs.
But it wasn’t just laughter. This was a movie with heart, and as a parent of young children, I identified with the problems and challenges these families were experiencing. The filmmakers did a nice job bringing everything down to the touching conversation between Allyson and Bones in the waiting area of the jail.
I really, really liked this scene! Yes, it had a powerful message about Allyson needing to allow herself to be herself. And yes, it mentioned the name of Jesus (shocking!), but even so it didn’t come across to me as preachy. How did Christians actually manage to make a climactic heartfelt scene that wasn’t preachy? Stunning! Was it the writing? The acting? Maybe it was both!
Regardless, the writers made the fantastically unexpected choice of having the tattoo-parlor biker comforting the suburban church-going housewife rather than the suburban church-going housewife leading the tattoo-parlor biker in the Sinner’s Prayer, and I loved it. It was a surprising choice, a lovely calm moment in the middle of all of the comedic chaos, and it worked.
The Revolutionary Spirit of the Film
In 2014, Moms’ Night Out is a revolutionary film. It is a dangerous film. It’s a film that stands to piss off a whole lot of people.
And I love it for that.
Think about it – the film shows families that support each other, even when under stress; it shows husbands who go out of their way to care for their wives – even when the wives are obviously stressed out; it has a lead who has the ambition to stay at home and homeschool her kids; It treats faith like a normal part of life, and shows that people of faith aren’t that much different than people who don’t claim a faith.
Twenty years ago, these ideas would have seemed typical, maybe even dull. Today? They so stun the world that many critics can’t get past it.
And because the film was light, and airy, and not didactic, it worked.
Moms’ Night Out was not the typical “faith-based” film – no Christian celebrity cameos, no overt Gospel presentation, no cheesy acting and production values…
…and it worked.
For all those filmmakers of faith out there with spec scripts burning up your harddrives, let this film serve as a lesson for you. You don’t have to make films that are so on-the-nose. You can make films that tell the stories that you want to tell, and they can be good and even make money – even if they don’t check the all the prerequisite boxes of the Christian films of the past.
Read my past reviews here:
Believe Me, which will be released this weekend, both in theaters and online, which means I’llbe able to watch and review while it’s fresh!