Believe Me • Thimblerig’s Review

A few weeks ago, I got wind of Believe Me, a little indie film that was being produced by some Christian filmmakers – and the thing that really got my attention was that Nick Offerman was somehow involved.

Nick Offerman, who plays the impressively mustachioed libertarian director of the parks department in one of my favorite sitcoms, Parks and Recreation, involved in a film made by Christians?

I was further perplexed when I did a bit of research and discovered that the guys making this film, who run a studio called Riot Studios, had never made a feature film before.

And they got Nick Offerman?

Extremely curious, I went and found a copy of Riot Studio’s claim-to-fame documentary, Beware of Christians, and watched it.  You can read my review here.  I walked away somewhat reassured that the guys making Believe Me were spot on theologically, but I was also extremely nervous.  Could these Christian kids pull off a decent feature length movie?

After all, I’ve been challenging Christian filmmakers and the church-going audience about the condition of our films in blog posts like this, and this, and this, and this, and this.  So needless to say, I am heavily invested in the possibility of seeing good filmmaking by Christians.

Last night I watched Believe Me, and now I really, really want to call this post, “What’s RIGHT with Christian Filmmaking”.

Because the boys at Riot Studios get it.   They GET IT.

Let me give a quick synopsis of the film.

The film tells the story of Sam (Alex Russell), a frat boy who is about to graduate from university when he finds out from his dean (Nick Offerman in the world’s shortest cameo – but I’m still impressed that they got him) that he has nearly $10,000 in back tuition that has to be taken care of before he can graduate, a bill he can’t afford to pay.  Sam is not willing to take time off to try and earn the money because he’s afraid he’ll never get back on track to continue his education in law school, but he also doesn’t have access to that kind of money.

A girl-hunting trip to a campus church is the inciting incident that propels this story forward, as Sam sees how much money Christians are willing to give to ministries.  This leads him to hatch a scheme to create a fake ministry to scam money away from Christians.  He enlists the aid of his roommates and frat brothers, Pierce (Miles Fisher, who looks amazingly like he could be the product of a union between Christian Bale and Tom Cruise), Baker (Max Adler), and a reluctant Tyler (Sinqua Walls), the conscience of the group, who is not from Africa (that bit made me laugh).  In a short amount of time, their “ministry”, Get Wells Soon – allegedly digging wells in Africa – is born.

The ministry is an immediate success, mainly because of Sam’s Jeff Winger-like ability to tell people what they want to hear, and gets the attention of Ken Hopkins (veteran actor Christopher McDonald), the executive director of Cross Country, the “second most impactful ministry in the country” (as rated by the Holy Herald).  Hopkins offers the boys a spot on his twenty-seven city tour, and an opportunity for them to raise some serious support for Get Wells Soon.

Realizing that this is their chance to score some serious cash, the boys (who become known as The God Squad) accept Hopkins’ offer, and join the Cross Country team.  Along the way they meet worship leader Gabriel (Zachary Knighton) – although he doesn’t call himself a worship leader, again – laugh out loud moment, and Callie the tour coordinator (Johanna Braddy), who also seems to be the most sincere Christian of the Cross Country bunch.

Over the next few weeks, the team criss-crosses the country, and Sam and the rest of the God Squad become better and better at selling their scam, and they begin to skim quite a bit of cash off the top of the donations.   But of course, conflict emerges, secrets become known, and they are faced with losing everything.  But I’m not giving out any spoilers with this review, so if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to go see Believe Me.  You can also download it and watch it here.

And I would highly recommend that you do.

When I wrote What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking, I said that Christian filmmakers needed to do five things so that our filmmaking could have an impact outside the Christian bubble.

Those five things included:

1.  Our films need to take more risks.

Believe Me was an incredibly risky movie for Christian filmmakers.  The hero of the film is a con-artist fratboy, and so he and his buddies talk and act like con-artist fratboys.  The movie has a PG-13 rating for language, but the characters talk the way those characters would talk – with little punches pulled.  They also drink a LOT of beer, and that’s shown.  But it doesn’t seem like the filmmakers did this because they wanted to shock the traditional faith-based audience, they did this because they wanted the film to be true.  And Sam and his friends acted true to the way guys like that would act.

2.  Our films need to challenge our audience.

Sam teaching the other members of the God Squad the important words to use in prayer.

Sam teaching the other members of the God Squad the important words to use in prayer.

I absolutely loved that this film took contemporary evangelical American Christianity, and allowed us to see ourselves through the eyes of the non-Christian con-artists.  First of all, Gabriel, the incredibly pretentious non-worship leader worship leader, has a signature song called “Jesus”, and according to the screen in the scene, it’s simply repeating the word “Jesus” over and over again (x16).  Secondly, Sam realizes that if he and his friends are going to pull off this scam, they need to be able to be completely convincing as modern Christians, and so he assigns each member of his team a different aspect of Christianity to investigate, and then they will teach each other how to be convincing.  This bit was hilarious, and reminded me a LOT of the humor of Tim Hawkins, who also has fun with modern Christianity in his standup routine.  The bit on how to pray was especially pointed, and has been a bone of contention for me for a long, long time.

One of my biggest problems with movies being made by Christians these days is that they are tailor making films for the Christian subculture, and I firmly believe that this should not be the mission of all filmmakers of faith.  I contend that filmmakers who follow Christ should be making films that people outside the bubble would want to see, and in the process we might actually be able to see seeds of our faith planted.

I loved that Believe Me was not necessarily made for Christians, that this film is well-made and well-told enough that we could gladly show it to our non-Christian films, but I also think that this is a film that mature adult Christians need to watch.  Because it’s about us.

3.  The pulpit is the pulpit, and art is art, and we need to let them be the two different things that they are – in other words, don’t have preachy, didactic films.

This film is all about a cross-country ministry, and several scenes involve Sam preaching to the audience, but the film never comes across as preachy, because we know that he doesn’t believe the things that he is teaching.  The film comes closest to being preachy when Sam and Callie are having private conversations, but those scenes aren’t preachy because we know that she is sincere – and she is talking the way Christians talk – and we know that Sam is not, and he just doesn’t get it.

And when things start to turn (again, not giving out spoilers), it seems like things are turning the way that they would turn.  It doesn’t seem contrived, or forced.  It doesn’t feel heavy-handed or didactic.  It might be a bit predicable, but then we have that ending, which was oddly satisfying in its ambiguity.  Which brings me to the next point…

4.  Our films shouldn’t give all the answers.

Without going into details, I love the ambiguity of the ending of the very last scene of the film.  That – my friends – was a spectacular choice by the filmmakers.  But you’ll have to see it to understand.  It just goes along with my contention that not every question needs to be answered in filmmaking, because that is what creates good discussion and conversation.

5.  We are beholden to tell good stories.

Believe Me is a well-written, well-acted, well-produced film.  The script was pretty solid, and the filmmakers somehow made me care about these four fratboy con-artists, and by the end of the film I was rooting for them to somehow find their way out of the mess they’d made for themselves.

The movie had several laugh-out-loud moments, and when it threatened to get bogged down in the sincerity of the third act, it pulled itself out and recovered nicely.  The filmmakers went to the trouble to hire real actors who were believable, who have no connection to the modern contemporary faith-based filmmaking scene, and I hope that it pays off for them.

The only part I didn’t like about Believe Me was the LeCrae scene.  I didn’t quite get why Callie was in that movie theater, and what kind of movie she was going to see, and it felt a bit forced as a way to get LaCrae into the movie.  It seemed like this was an attempt on behalf of the filmmakers to show that they had some sort of cred with the hipper elements of the evangelical Christian subculture – “Hey!  We got LeCrae!”, and it just didn’t work for me.

But hey, at least it wasn’t Willie Robertson!

Folks, this is a historic moment.  Believe Me is the first film made by Christians to be awarded the coveted five golden groundhogs for doing all five of these things, so first of all – congratulations to Michael Allen and Will Bakke for this high honor.  I wish I actually had golden groundhogs that I could send to you guys.

Golden Groundhogs Believe Me

 

In conclusion, I look forward to seeing the future efforts by Riot Studios.  You guys have my prayers (without overusing the word “just”), as well as my admiration.  And if you ever want to get into feature animation, I’d love to talk to you about my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.  It seems like it would be in your wheelhouse.

Beware of Christians – Thimblerig’s Review

The other day, I came across the trailer for an upcoming film called Believe Me, which has this logline: “Desperate, broke, and out of ideas, four college seniors start a fake charity to embezzle money for tuition.”

official-movie-poster-for-believe-me-in-theaters-and-on-demand-starting-sept-26-2014

This film caught my eye because it is being marketed as the anti-faith-based film – a movie made by Christians that tells the kind of story most faith-based filmmakers aren’t willing to tell.  It is a movie that the filmmakers aren’t interested in labeling a “Christian movie”.   In an interview with The Christian Post, director Will Bakke said emphatically, “to be clear, ‘Believe Me’ is not a Christian movie. Christianity is the backdrop to the story, but there’s no hidden agenda or altar call at the end of it.”

When I read this interview, part of me was intrigued.  After all, it sounded like these guys were trying to do exactly what I’ve been challenging the readers of this blog that Christians needed to be doing – making good films that don’t necessarily have “a family-friendly, faith-based, Dove Foundation approved” label slapped onto it.  A film that might actually attract people from outside of the church, and plant a few seeds through excellent storytelling rather than bashing them on the head with didactic on-the-nose preaching.

You know, kind of like Jesus used to do.

Radical idea, eh?

But then my cynical nature popped up, and the warning lights started flashing.  After all, what if these guys were playing some sort of game?  What if they were conning us, just like the characters in their film?  What if they were just a group of guys who really weren’t interested in the Christian faith, but who were savvy enough to recognize that there were a LOT of Christians out there who haven’t jumped on the sub-par faith-based film bandwagon?  That there were lots of us looking for an “anti-faith-based” film made by Christians?

What if they just saw that there was money to be made by saying all the right things, but not really believing them?

So, being the good blogger journalist I’m endeavoring to be, I decided to do some research.  I scoured their website, where I saw that these guys were pretty creative and seemed to be a bit on the hipster side with their retro Mad Men suits, but what I didn’t see was anything that confirmed or denied what they were saying in the interviews.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.04.35 PM

I realized I would have to go a step further, and check out one of their previous films in the hope that I might get some confirmation, one way or the other, which led me to download Riot Studio’s 2010 provocatively-titled documentary, Beware of Christians.

Beware of Christians is a film made by four young college-aged Christians who decide to spend five weeks backpacking across Europe, talking to people and each other about their thoughts on God and the following seven topics: identity, materialism sex/relationships, church, wealth/poverty, media/entertainment, and alcohol.  The film opened with one of my favorite quotes from Brennan Manning, which caught my attention and started me wondering if the Riot Studios boys might be Ragamuffins, too:

“The single greatest cause of atheism today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and deny him with their lifestyle.”

It was a good sign, and so I pressed on.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.16.42 PMFilmed as if the viewer had just walked up on a conversation in progress, we’re introduced to the four affable young men: Alex, Will, Michael, and Matt, sitting around a table surrounded by darkness, but bathed in a single light.  They are typical early 20-somethings, talking alot, often about nothing at all, but surprisingly sometimes about much, much deeper things.

Through a series of quick shots, they share the reason for this documentary – to get away from all of the influences and distractions of their American Christian lives to try and figure out what Jesus wants from them.

And so they fly off to Europe for five weeks to try and wrangle this out.

This thought came to me pretty early on in the viewing:  When I was in college, why the heck didn’t I think of flying off to Europe with my friends and making it into a documentary?

But I digress.

On the one hand, I appreciated that these four guys were earnestly asking questions, and I appreciated that they seemed willing to dig deeper into the things they’d been taught growing up in the Bible belt.  Too many Christians never take that step, blindly believing what they’re taught.  This makes for flabby, sheep-like Christians who typically end up following a charismatic pastor rather the Good Shepherd.  These misguided sheep also don’t have a problem flocking to poorly made “faith-based” films because the films hit all the right beats that reaffirm their place in the flock.  In Beware, I was impressed both by the questions these four asked, and the fact that they were willing to search – not for something to replace their faith, but for how to be authentic Christians.

On the other hand, it was obvious from the get-go that I was not a part of the intended demographic for this film.  The filmmakers plainly made this film for their peers – churched kids in their late teens or early twenties – not married dads in their mid-forties.  This meant that as I watched the film, I had an increasing awareness that I’m years away from the stage of life of the intended audience, and while I don’t claim to understand everything about the Christian faith, I have already been through much of the same soul-searching, but it’s been a while.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.31.06 PMThe result?  Half the time I wanted to pat these guys on the back in support of the spiritual journey they were documenting, and the other half the time I wanted to smack them upside the head for their goofiness and general immaturity.  Really?  Dressing like gladiators and fighting with toy swords at The Coliseum?  Stealing your friend’s postcards and lying about it?  Does twenty years of life really make that much of a difference?  I suppose it does.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of watching Beware of Christians was a renewed respect for the folks who are called to minister in campus organizations like Intervarsity, Crusade, or FCA, or those called to teach on university campuses.

To speak to the quality of the film…

This is the second film that Riot Studios produced, and so while the film was reasonably well-cut, and the pacing was fairly brisk, the finished product was still a bit rough and I felt like it could have done with some trimming.  For example, it seemed like they tried to create a little conflict between a couple of the guys with the previously mentioned stolen postcards running gag, but in my opinion, this was a darling that should have been killed.  It didn’t add to the film, and just made Alex and Will look a bit like jerks.  Just let the guy send his postcards!

Overall, I would recommend the film for youth groups or university ministries, as those demographics would probably appreciate the antics of the leads, but more importantly, the film could be a great launching point for discussion about God, life, and the Christian faith.  The quartet does a good job of raising questions, and I was gratified to see that they consistently look for answers in the right place.

And the best part for me is that now I won’t go into Believe Me with any reservations about the spiritual foundation undergirding the filmmakers.  I feel reassured that they will probably be doing their best to produce a well-made film that will contain an important nugget or two of truth, even without a hidden agenda or alter call.  And I hope beyond hope that it will be the anti-faith-based Christian film that I’ve been waiting for.

And considering that Believe Me has Nick Offerman in a supporting role, I think there’s a pretty good chance that it will be just that.

nic