Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.
Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2
Our star rating (1-5): 2 1/2
He will redeem me unharmed
from the battle that I wage,
for many are arrayed against me…
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the
kingdom of God without being born from above.
This Christian produced film makes no attempt to disguise its Christian origins, from the beginning credits to the main character’s opening narration in which he speaks of God and God’s ways. When you read in the credits that “God” is a producer, well unless this is a Mel Brooks-like parody, you will have no doubt that these filmmakers take their faith seriously. The good news is that I’m in Love With a Church Girl is well produced and acted. The bad news is that it is even more blunt in expressing, one might say in parading, the Christian faith of its makers than did the old Billy Graham pictures back in the 50s and early 60s or those of the Sherwood Baptist church behind Sherwood Picures. More on this later.
The realism of the film, directed by Steve Race and “based on a true story,” is partially due no doubt to the fact that scriptwriter Galley Molina spent five years in prison for drug trafficking. It was there that he began writing the script about a drug dealer/concert promoter who falls in love with a Christian woman, with his life slowly changing, even while two cops are keeping him under surveillance in order to put him away. Although far too predictable to generate any suspense, rapper Ja Rule, who himself just got of prison (sentenced on drug and tax evasion charges) before starring in this film, is well worth watching as a man who resists the pull of God in his life because of his loyalty to his old crime friends.
Ja Rule is Miles Montego, who, attracted to the beautiful Vanessa Leon’s (Adrienne Bailon), responds to her question about what church he attends with, “Right now I’m kinda between churches.” His devout Catholic father and mother, ignorant of his drug dealing, have been urging him to return to church, but it is only after he meets Vanessa and her aggressively Christian mother and father that he at last gives in and accompanies them to their Protestant church.
He is rocked back on his heels in the parking lot when a sleek Lamborghini pulls up and a casually but expensively dressed man gets out and greets the Leons. When they introduce the man as Pastor Galley, the surprised Miles says that he doesn’t look like a pastor. Shortly thereafter Miles is impressed that Galley doesn’t sound like one either, nor is the service, based on the entertainment industry model adapted by most megachurches, the boring experience he had expected.
As he sorts through his values and continues to hang out with his old friends—Vanessa is shocked when she meets them– DEA agents Jason McDaniels (Stephen Baldwin) and Terry Edgemond (Martin Kove) keep him under surveillance in the hope of gathering damning evidence that will put him behind bars. They are at first skeptical of Miles going to church, but after many such surveillance scenes one of them makes a surprising admission to the other. Meanwhile Miles finds that Vanessa is not the easy mark of the other girls who have willingly shared his bed. She is not about to give in to his charm and blandishments. The funniest scene in the film shows him taking a cold shower after another of her turndowns.
Although the story’s outcome is a foregone conclusion, there is an especially dramatic pair of scenes when the soul-troubled Miles stands and then kneels before a huge stained glass window of Christ praying in Gethsemane and prays. His mother is deathly ill, and he is also really is torn between his old friends and the new way that beckons to him. The first time he aggressively says, “You want to send me to hell, book the flight.” Later when Vanessa herself lies at death’s door step, he finally quits resisting and says, “I surrender, lord.”
At $3 million this is a small budget film by Hollywood standards, but not for a faith-based company like Reverence Gospel Media. Sherwood Films, the film production company of the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, reportedly made their popular film Fireproof, for $500,000. Like that film, Church Girl will appeal almost exclusively to a church audience. (When I asked a theater staff person what he knew about the film, he replied, “It’s a bad film,” admitting afterward that he had not seen it, but had heard patrons talking about it. It is “bad” only in the sense that people perceive it as a sermonic attempt by Christians to evangelize them. As when I reviewed the Sherwood films, I applaud the Christian groups that have decided to plunge into filmmaking rather than just standing back and condemning “godless Hollywood.” But they will have to learn that the dividing line between art and propaganda is a very fine one, and thus far the faith-based films are on the side of propaganda—and I do not mean this in a totally demeaning way.
Propaganda is seldom subtle or ambiguous, yet ambiguity is at the core of art, be it film, painting or poetry. The approach of the artist to the audience is not frontal, as in the case of faith based filmmakers, but oblique. The artist seeks to woo the audience, to make us think about and wrestle with the work until we arrive at our own meaning. There is little if any “spelling out” of a message. This is something that the producers of the old Billy Graham had trouble learning, almost all of them following the life of a sinner who in the last sequence attends a Billy Graham Crusade rally and goes forward to answer the altar call. These films attracted fairly large audiences, most of whom were the converted bringing along an unconverted friend or acquaintance. When the producers of the film Two a Penny introduced a note of ambiguity by ending with the hero wrestling with his decision for Christ and not going forward, the film failed in the US because its church audience would not accept an ambiguous ending.
From what I saw at an afternoon showing of Galley Molina’s film, a theater empty except for myself, this film will soon leave the few theaters that it has opened in (just one here in Cincinnati). I wish the good folks at Reverence Gospel Media well, but hope that they move on from propaganda to art—or at least as close to art as possible. Their film is fairly realistic (though certain parts of the film are very questionable), but the plot is totally predictatbe. What might the story be like if the person prayed for does not recover from illness, or the pure-hearted underdog sports team does not win? What might a real theology of the cross look like (as in such films as To Kill a Mockingbird or Cool Hand Luke)—in other words, in what ways might a theology of failure (from the world) play out on the big screen? We can see how it might look in the two films just mentioned, but isn’t it a bit strange and interesting that they were made by Hollywood studios, and not church groups. Come to think of it, there is one film made by a Christian studio, the Paulist Fathers’ Romero starring Raul Julia as the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador. There are sermons in that film, but they are directed to the people in the story, the filmmakers leaving it up to the audience to decide whether or not to become involved in social justice or not.
The full review with a set of 10 questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the November issue of Visual Parables, which will be available toward the end of October or early November. If you are a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, contact the editor, and he can send you the full review.