I Still Believe (2020)
One Love Can Change Your Life
Alabaman filmmaking brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin (collectively credited as the Erwin Brothers) have been making Christian films for the better part of ten years, all of which are tailor-made for a secular young-adult audience. I first stumbled onto the pair in 2012, when I was involved in a Christian youth group (yep, I work with kids) and one of my colleagues introduced me to their anti-abortion drama October Baby (2011), hoping it’d sway me into taking faith-based cinema more seriously. And while sure, the movie wasn’t great (it’s overly saccharine and not very subtle), I understood its appeal, as the film is competently shot and scripted, pretty accessible, and spoke directly to its target group. It didn’t, however, compel me to check out the brothers’ subsequent efforts, including the sports drama Woodlawn (2015), and their box-office smash I Can Only Imagine (2018).
Given all the craziness of the current state of the world, I decided to give the Erwin’s another go with their latest, the romance-drama I Still Believe, which tells the real-life story of contemporary American Christian music singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp (Riverdale’s K.J. Apa), chiefly his early life and how me met his first wife, Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson), who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer shortly before they wed. The result is another watchable yet overly sanitized affair, a film so wholesome it makes all those Nicholas Sparks movies look edgy!
Based on Camp’s memoir of the same name, the film opens in September 1999, when young Jeremy, a blessed aspiring musician, is about to wave goodbye to his family in Indiana and say hello to a new chapter of his life at California’s Calvary Chapel Bible College. Once in the sun-kissed state with nothing but a guitar, Jeremy attends a gig where he winds up befriending famous worship group frontman Jean-Luc LaJoie from The Kry (played by Nathan Parsons), who, for reasons unknown, is still hanging around his old campus. It turns out that Jean-Luc has eyes on a wholesome blonde student named Melissa, who happens to be the very same girl that our Jeremy falls head-over-heels with at first sight. Jeremy and Melissa eventually begin to date in secret (we see the couple on the beach and going through day-to-day moments in their relationship), with Melissa afraid that Jean-Luc — who’s close friends with Melissa and offers to mentor wannabe musician Jeremy — might find out.
Once the love triangle is resolved, the pair are hit with an even tougher hurdle as Melissa is diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. This news doesn’t deter Jeremy, though; in fact, it has the opposite effect, as the love-struck musician asks for her hand in marriage at the hospital where she’s being treated, and, as Jeremy’s father puts it, chooses ‘to walk into the fire with her.’ From here, the couple navigates the trials and tribulations that lie ahead, all the while holding onto their faith and the knowledge that God has their futures fully mapped out.
Those familiar with Camp’s life and career probably know full well where the story is headed, and the Erwin Brothers use familiar tropes to take us through the journey — even the most casual of viewers should be able to foresee the outcome. Fans hoping to get more insight into Camp’s musical passage might also find themselves disappointed as this is barely explored here — he literally goes from singing in college to preaching to large crowds of people, with nothing in between about his record deals, rise to fame, or impact on the Christian music industry. There are a few scenes where Jeremy asks folks to pray for his wife over national radio, but that’s about it. Even the songs, performed here by the talented Apa, all kind of meld into each other, with no defining musical moments bar maybe Camp’s titular track.
With that said, bankable leads K.J. Apa and Britt Robertson have some great chemistry and really bring their thinly written characters to life, their movie star charisma lifting the film above its Hallmark Movie Channel aesthetic. Apa is believable as Camp and totally sells his character’s emotional arc, where he discovers that suffering and faith are inextricably linked. Similarly, Robertson’s is pretty endearing as Melissa — she aspires to be a wife and child-bearer, which are considered valuable vocations through Christian goggles, writes Bible notes on a whiteboard outside her dorm room, and stresses about breaking her promise to God, where she says she’d focus on work during the semester rather than boys. Scenes where Apa and Robertson are together shine, even if we’ve seen a dozen other movies where doomed lovers stare at starlit skies and talk about constellations.
Shania Twain is underused as Jeremy’s mother Terry, the Canadian singer-songwriter showing up in more of a cameo role (and nope, she doesn’t get to sing). Likewise, Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump (1994), plays against type as Jeremy’s dad Tom, the veteran performer nailing a powerful scene in the movie’s third act. Melissa Roxburgh, Star Trek Beyond (2016), has a small part as Melissa’s supportive sister Heather, as does Reuben Dodd, Teachers (2019), who is sweet as Jeremy’s disabled younger brother Josh, filmmakers using Jeremy’s interactions with his handicapped sibling to underline a subtle pro-life message.
All told, there’s no denying that there’s power in Camp’s story, irrespective of how safe the Erwin Brothers play it. Yes, its messages might feel forced, and its structure formulaic, but I Still Believe will speak to, and deeply affect the Christian crowd. Who knows, it might even convert some of those Riverdale ‘non-believers,’ who’ll track this one down because of star K.J. Apa.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie