Georgia made a movie. (Forgive me if I have trouble getting over my shock and admiration. But they really did make a really good movie.)
Now here is a film sensation you’ll want to get a taste of. My dad invited me to a movie screening, which I accepted only because we were spending the evening together, not knowing what we were to see. When I found out it was a “Christian movie” I was a bit apprehensive… Joshua was my last excursion into Christians making movies, and I did not want a second coming.
By the time the writer/director of Facing the Giants introduced the film, however, I was feeling hopeful. By the time Act II hit, I was interested and engrossed in the story. By the time the credits rolled, I was deeply impressed by the purity, innocence, and authentic pathos of this film.
It turns out that Sherwood Baptist church in Albany Georgia decided to “reach the world from where we are,” and, hearing that most people consider their film-watching habits more important to them than their church-going habits (or lack thereof), they decided to make a movie.
One of the pastors of Sherwood Baptist, Alex Kendrick is the writer, director and starring actor. It is apparent that he is the guts of the operation, from a production standpoint and from a creative standpoint, though he would be the first to tell you that he is merely serving as an instrument of the will of God. If, as you read this, you are not someone who believes in God, then consider it a lovely delusion. If you are, then learn from the example of this man whose attitude is expressed by his character in the film when he says, “If we lose, we praise Him. If we win, we praise Him,” which smacks distinctly of Job’s words, “The good Lord gives, and the good Lord takes away.” Truly an attitude to live by.
A little back story on the making of the film: In 2003, Alex and Stephen Kendrick (brothers) wrote a little movie called Flywheel. It was a low-budget, low production quality film about a dishonest carsalesmen who is caught, and undergoes a process of redemption by being compelled to pay back the money he stole, and learning to trust in a higher power. The movie played locally, and did quite well. It was successfully shown on several smaller TV networks, but it did not, at least not nationally, make it to the silver screen. Eventually, however, a little movie rental chain called Blockbuster Video somehow got wind of it, and liked the story so much they picked it up and put it in every store in the country. You can rent Flywheel at your local Blockbuster.
So they made a second movie, Facing the Giants. The budget was $100,000, which is breathtakingly low for an average Hollywood film, so the production quality is still amaterish at points. The actors are all members of the Sherwood Baptist community. The design, set, lighting, etc. are all members of the community. Since this is a sports-centered story, they hired two professional camera men with experience in the NFL. (A good choice).
With the movie made, they began trying to distribute it, trusting God to make the oppurtunities appear if he so wanted. No oppurtunities appeared, and, in the words of Kendrick, they “Praised him, and began pursuing TV or DVD distribution.”
While in communication with Provident records regarding a Third Day song they wanted to use in the movie, a Provident bigwig was able to see the film. In the middle of his lunch, he dropped everything, cancelled his appointments, and flew to Georgia that day.
It turns out Provident is a child company of a little company called Sony. Sony said, “How would you like to use the Third Day” song and have us put your movie in 400 theaters across the nation?” They liked that very much.
Having given their hopes to God, finding them disappointed, they suddenly found them fulfilled. Why did Sony snatch the movie up? Well, because business people are beginning to catch on that the Evangelical sub-culture is big money, for starters, but the quality and appeal of Facing the Giants is undeniable.
Here are a few critiques: The production quality is amaterish at points. The acting is on and off. They have it where it counts, however. Some of the scenes that are intended to be “emotional” fall short (but only some!) due to heavy doses of musical accompaniment, etc. The story is, perhaps, overly simple. My biggest compaint was that there are about twelve too many sub-plots. My screenwriting friend tells me that you have your A-plot, B-plot, and maybe a C-plot, but hold your horses if you start going farther than that. Facing the Giants has about 5 significant plots-within-plots and it makes it a bit tiresome, not only in length but in predictabile conflict-resolution cycles.
That said, it’s virtues are legion.
First of all, it is a movie… and it is good… and it was made in Georgia. (Did I mention that yet?) The actors have authentic southern accents, but not for satirical purposes! It was a very strange experience.
Second of all, it is a real story that is entertaining, emotionally compelling, and artistically respectable. Perhaps the greatest complaint I have, the greatest suggestion I would give to Christian people who want to make movies, is this: Good movies are born of a deep desire to tell a good story. There is no other purpose for which good movies are made. Good documentaries might be born of a deep desire to present a viewpoint, or tell the world something it needs to hear. Good comedies are born of the desire to make people laugh. But no good movie, nothing that landed on AFI’s Top 100 list (the critic’s choices) or IMDB’s Top 250 list (the audiences’ choices), no movie of enduring appeal was made from the desire to make money, or to articulate a message, or any other reason. To be sure, they may have came to be made because of production company’s desire to make money, but the spark began deep in the heart of the creator whose love for his story, like that of a father for his child, is, always has been, and always will be the alpha and the omega of narrative. Flannery O’Conner said, “If you want to make a point, write a speech.” Of course, stories make points, but that is not their primary purpose. The point is always subject to, or inherent in the story, rather than a vehicle for it. Even Plato, whose literary dialogues are probably the heaviest, intellectually speaking, pieces of dramatic art ever created, firmly committed himself to putting people before messages.
I had the oppurtunity to ask the director during the Q&A time, “What would you say is the primary purpose of the movie: To tell a good story or to evangelize, to influence the viewers’ relationship with God, etc.?” he paused and said, “You know, it is hard to tell the difference.”
As a movie that could easily be mistaken for another Omega Code piece of propogandanistic tripe, the presence of this ambiguouty is the movie’s great strength. The story simply is the message, and the message is the story, they cannot be extricated. Just as The Godfather undeniably has a “message” and Citizen Kane has a “message,” but the message and the story are one. Any filmmaker who misunderstand this principle, whether they are liberal agenda-pushers or right-wing fundamentalists, inevitably end up producing junk.
Facing the Giants is primarily a good story. It is a simple story, sure, and a character-driven one, so if you do not relate to the characters, you will not enjoy it, but it obeys this law of narrative, so to speak, to pleasing results.
The characters are real and interesting and playful and flawed. The african-american assistant coach is worth the price of admission. The teenage boy whose father cannot walk, and whose tendency is therefore to act weak, even though he is not, makes you want to stand up in the theater and urge him, “You’re only problem is your fear!” And the head coach, struggling with the weight of responsibility, inadequacy, and hope deferred, is a compelling portrayal of what it means to be human and dependent.
This brings me to the next noteworthy facet of this film: The characters, the people around whom the narrative revolves, happen to be Christian people, from Georgia. For this reason, Facing the Giants is a rare instance of an authentic story about how evangelicals (Baptists, in particular) actually live their life. The all-seeing eye of the 35 millimeter camera takes us into late-night conversations between husband and wife, into intimate prayer times during a time of horrible discouragement, and into the exciting and unpredictable experience of “revival” when Jesus Christ calls dozens of young people to him in a way that they hear, understand, and obey.
You might be tempted to call this, therefore, a “Christian” story, but you ought to resist! There are no “Christian stories” or “UnChristian stories” in the whole world, strictly speaking, any more than there are “Christian hot dogs” and “Christian power lawnmowers.” A Christian is a person who follows Christ, and thus the epithet can only be applied (if we are being strict) to persons. There are, however, objects or pieces of art produced by Christians, such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Moonlit Sonata, the book of Ephesians, the Consolation of Philosophy, and the Declaration of Independence, etc. And there are pieces of art in which the content relates to God or the afterlife, or some such thing, but the art itself ought not to be properly called “Christian”, “Athiest”, “Homesick and slightly hungry,” or anything of the sort!
This movie is simply a story about people. The people have a certain worldview and life style, namely, they are Baptist Christians. This is an important distinction.
A fun offshoot of this fact: since it tells the story authentically and with commitment to the rules of art, it is a wonderful insight into some of the joys and trials of being a Christian person. It is wonderful insight for those of you who are of different religions or different worldviews altogether. If that sounds interesting to you, see it!
All of the experiences and elements pictured dramatically in the film are from real events in the writer’s life, and those of his community. The faithfulness of God, the unexpected changes of character, the emotional and intellectual challenge of following the Christ are all admirably portrayed, without significant exageration or “sacranyzation.”
The movie may be considered “preachy” at times, but, I believe, unintentionally so, because the “sermon’s” appear naturally and unapologetically in the narrative as it unfolds. There is no reason to remove the sermon-ish parts from the story, indeed, there is no way to, for the sermon-ish parts simply are the story! In this way Facing the Giants succeeds wonderfully and proudly where movies like Omega Code and Left Behind fail dismally and shamefully.
A third virtue, and then I am done: The appeal of the story, for me, and perhaps the greatest appeal it has, the one which shines out so brightly that a secular executive somewhere in New York or Los Angeles sat up in his chair and decided to put his money on the table to distribute it to thousands of average American movie-goers , is this: The people in the story are good. They have a genuine cladestine purity that slowly seeps out as the movie progresses, revealing a childlike beauty of soul that is both inspiring and convicting.
“Childlike” is perhaps the best word, in many ways, for even the low production quality has a sort of charm to it, as when we watch an earnest-hearted child’s attempt to do a “Late Night” show in the living room with interviews from the family. The makers of Facing the Giants are children in the film industry. And that’s OK. Just like the child’s home videos, the quality will surely mature, but the innocence and un-self-consciousness, ideally, will not.
Facing the Giants is a story by children, for children, for it invites viewers to lower their gaurd a little bit and admit that sometimes we just enjoy seeing a good person’s life go well, sometimes we just have to sit down and cry when thing’s feel too big and scary, sometimes it’s nice to know that we are being taken care of.
I laughed, I cried, and, when it is released, I will surely see it again.
Facing the Giants comes out to 400 theaters nationwide September 29th. See it!