I STILL BELIEVE – Review
Here’s a unique flick, unlike nearly any other film now at your multiplex (or single screens or drive-ins down south). That’s mainly because it’s a mix of several film genres (if it were a meal would it be a stew or a petite buffet). It’s a coming of age story since it’s about a young man leaving his midwestern hometown for college in sunny ‘Cal. And he meets “the girl” and begins a romance, so it’s a love story. Like the fifty-plus-year-old flick of that name, things don’t go…smoothly, so it’s a “tear-jerker”. Oh, did I mention that this college kid is a real guy? Yup, it’s a biography and a musical one at that since he’s a singer. Actually he’s one of the most popular contemporary Christian singers of the last couple of decades, so this movie is at the forefront of the faith-based film genre, one from a fairly prominent studio, Lionsgate. To tie everything together, it shares its title with perhaps the subject’s most popular song, I STILL BELIEVE.
The true tale begins in 1999 as Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) waves goodbye to his family in Indiana, papa Tom (Gary Sinise), mama Terry (Shanina Twain), and his two younger brothers (Reuben Dodd and Nicholas Bechtel), and boards a Greyhound bus bound for Murrietta, CA where he’ll begin his freshman year at Calvary Chapel Bible College. After settling into his dorm room, he spots a flyer about the concert on campus that night. Posing as a ‘roadie’, Jeremy sneaks into the backstage area where he befriends the lead singer of the group Kry, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons) by tuning his guitar. During the show, Jeremy walks on stage to give Jean Luc the instrument. Looking out into the audience, a radiant young blonde catches his eye. After the concert he sees her leaving with some friends. Dashing up the aisle, Jeremy introduces himself to Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson), a sophomore at the college. Soon the two begin a friendship, hanging out all around the campus. Jeremy wants to begin a romantic relationship with her, but it turns out that Jean Luc has the same intentions. To make things more complicated the elder established singer has taken Jeremy “under his wing”, introducing him to record execs and agents and getting him to record some of the songs he’s written. As the romantic triangle gets sorted out, Jeremy heads back home for the holidays. Late one night he gets a call from Jean Luc telling him that Melissa is in the hospital and wants to see him. It’s the start of an emotional roller coaster ride for the two young “lovebirds”. Despite all the medical setbacks, they decide to build a life together pinning all their hopes for the future on their shared love and faith.
In their second pairing as an on-screen couple (the first time was three years ago for A DOG’S PURPOSE) Robertson and Apa have a pleasant easy-going chemistry. Unfortunately, the work that has really showcased their talents are their small-screen roles. Robertson has been memorable in quirky off-beat TV shows such as “Swingtown” and “Casual’, but film stardom has proved elusive, whether it’s in indies like CAKE, a trek to Nicholas Sparks-land with THE LONGEST RIDE or infamous big-budget fantasy misfires like THE SPACE BETWEEN US and TOMORROWLAND. As Melissa, she’s got a dazzling smile, but the script’s bland characterization is near impossible to overcome. It’s tough to believe that these two “dreamy music makers” are vying for her attention. She sheds a bit of her saccharine excess when a pickle jar finally causes her to vent her anger. But soon after she’s back on a “pedestal” (and remains till the final fadeout). Apa, “Archie Andrews” in The CW’s very racy take on the classic comics, “Riverdale”, is all eager earnest smiles, when he’s not using his fingers to give his hair the perfect “bed head” look ( oh, and it’s a rich black, not the red sheen from TV). And like his co-star, there are few rough edges (sneaking into the concert just makes him a “rascal”), the ‘safe’ beau who is written with no cracks in his rise to stardom. Even his rival Jean Luc played as a surrogate big brother by Parson, can’t stay mad or slightly annoyed at the grinning guy. Sinise does bring some needed gravitas to his fatherly role, particularly as his voices his disappointments in a “heart to heart” moment with Apa. And country music queen Twain projects lots of maternal warmth, but mainly reminds her boy to eat (“Ya’ want Breakfast?”, “I kin’ fix ya’ some Breakfast?”).
The whole uplifting true tale is given a glowing “Hallmark card” look by a directing duo, the Erwin Brothers, Andrew and Jon (who co-wrote it with Jon Gunn). Actually the whole film feels like it sneaked out of that same-named basic cable channel (or Lifetime or Freeform, etc.). There’s an over-all “slickness’ to every scene in every setting (the school, the Camp family home) that strips away any rough “lived in” quality to the sequences, dirt-free to the point of being almost sterile. It’s especially true in the concert pieces which pale next to the work in last year’s STAR IS BORN remake which felt epic and intimate. A list appears to be followed strictly: overhead shot of the crowd, close-up of Camp, cut to the enthralled audience (often mothing the lyrics), medium shot from the back (usually silhouette), and repeat. The formula of a brave noble heroine facing a noble demise has been a drama mainstay, from DARK VICTORY to TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, and the filmmakers don’t really veer away as they put the religious message at the forefront. Most of all, everyone’s really nice, and nobody offends (these are those “well-mannered” young folks). Much of the film’s intended audience will appreciate it as they wipe away the tears (it is relentless in hammering at the emotions), but they deserve a more edgy and realistic (another ‘falling-in-love” montage of the leads cavorting around the campus) story than I STILL BELIEVE.
2 Out of 4