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Coming to Terms with 'The Jesus Revolution'

Coming to Terms with 'The Jesus Revolution'

How Christian audiences and snarky critics fortify the walls of the faith-based ghetto.

As the latest Oscar season draws to a close, it is not the millions that studios spent on campaigns for awards glory that have come to define our current cinematic moment, but two stories about films not even in the race. Fresh from an Oscar snub last February, actress Danielle Deadwyler decried the lack of awards attention for her role as Emmett Till’s mother stating, “We’re talking about people who perhaps chose not to see the film—we’re talking about misogynoir.” Two weeks later, The Jesus Revolution, a period drama detailing the 60s Christian counterculture movement, opened to $15.5 million—far surpassing financial projections and grossing $5 million more in its first two days of release than Deadwyler’s Till has in its entire four-month theatrical run.

By its second weekend in release, The Jesus Revolution earned more than $30 million, eclipsing the box office totals of every film nominated for Best Picture this year except for Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, and Everything Everywhere All At Once. Yet, despite the movie’s audience appeal and impeccable period setting, critics immediately pigeonholed it as yet another “faith-based” film, solid for such a genre of ill repute, but of little value beyond that.

Variety’s Dennis Harvey assessed it thusly:

“This inspirational take on a Southern California ministry’s eventually far-reaching impact may not be a definitive representation of some real-life participants’ roles. Nonetheless, it’s one of the most appealing faith-based big-screen entertainments in a while, polished and persuasive without getting too preachy.”

For’s Nell Minow, the film is:

“A gently told story preaching to the converts, assuming that evangelical Christianity is unassailably the answer without considering this particular form of worship may not be the answer for all.”

Though The Jesus Revolution has clawed its way to a 62 percent critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes (while maintaining a 99 percent audience score since its opening night), the critical establishment and Hollywood insiders have failed to see it as anything beyond a top-tier movie in the “faith-based” bargain bin.

The film, made by Franklin-based Kingdom Story Company, won’t get an Oscar campaign next year. Nor will its makers generate a tweetstorm by complaining about their snubs on a podcast. As Deadwyler implies, everyone in America has an obligation to see movies like Till; to show disinterest is to have an unconscionable, horrific character defect.

Suggesting that films like Till, in Minow’s terms, assume their perspectives are unassailably the answer without considering their form of worship may not be the answer for all is heretical. Similarly, suggesting that The Jesus Revolution is not only better made than most run-of-the-mill Oscar bait but also more concerned with probing imperfect humanity and the true nature of justice is not a proposition a legacy media critic would take for fear of the wrath of Deadwylers descending upon them—witness Till’s near-perfect critical score.

Yet, a year from now, when Till becomes just another option in streaming services’ “amplifying voices” category, The Jesus Revolution will continue to reach far beyond “faith-based” audiences because, with its focus on the limits of Christian platitudes, it lacks the self-importance of movies made to collect accolades.  By combining high production value with multifaceted spiritual themes, The Jesus Revolution exposes Hollywood’s social problem cinema as a secular iteration of “faith-based” films that shares the emotional crudity of their Christian counterpoints.

While most critics display an undeniable bias against faith-based films, the truth is that Christian filmmakers and audiences largely bear the responsibility for the reception of this oft-maligned genre. Beginning in 2006 with Facing the Giants, the Kendrick Brothers unleashed the formula for the contemporary Christian movie: undertrained actors (and sometimes Kirk Cameron) playing characters undergoing melodramatic temptations and opposed by mustache-twirling atheists that only a God who acts in Manichean terms could overcome.

As their website states, the Kendrick films aim to “honor Jesus Christ and make His truth and love known among the nations.” Such is an admirable goal for a missionary or pastor, but it’s much more the territory of the bland propagandist than the artist, a reason why Kendrick movies like Fireproof, The War Room, and Overcomer earned justified critical ire (as did their even-lesser imitators that became modest box-office successes like God’s Not Dead). Christian audiences, bussed by their churches to the matinee after the morning service, happily overlooked such films’ aesthetic deficiencies and lack of depth, unaware that the cost of the projects' financial success was an even greater rift with the secular world.

I remember an event at Lifeway headquarters in 2015 during which the Kendricks spoke about their faith on the eve of The War Room becoming their biggest hit. They proclaimed themselves movie fans with huge DVD collections. But, as they told a rapt audience, God commanded them to divest themselves of most of that contemporary filth. Instead, He called them to subsist on a diet of classic Hollywood movies without all the pesky cursing and sex. A filmmaker even slightly well-versed in the craft would know what happens in the cut from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall embracing to their banter the next morning, or what tragedy Jimmy Stewart’s everymen encountered when they sacrificed their own desires for the good of the community to achieve those happy endings. Surely, those with faith in God must also vouch for the deity’s ability to pick up on subtext.

As we discussed in our feature on Franklin’s burgeoning film industry last month, Kingdom Story Company’s president, Brandon Gregory, hoped to rehabilitate the faith-based label with a series of projects featuring known actors that appeal to all demographics. The company got off to an impressive start when 2018’s I Can Only Imagine–the true story of MercyMe’s megahit that boasted Dennis Quaid in a pivotal role–grossed $83.5 million at the domestic office and outperformed the latest installments of franchises like The Predator, Tomb Raider, and Sicario. The film’s director, Jon Erwin, continued directing Kingdom’s subsequent pandemic-era hits like I Still Believe and American Underdog before beginning work on The Jesus Revolution with co-director Brent McCorkle.

In his time with Kingdom, Erwin has developed a cohesive filmmaking style adept at employing the talents of actors like The Jesus Revolution’s Kelsey Grammer to serve the project at hand. While I Can Only Imagine announces itself as a different kind of faith-based film, it never fully navigates the tension between Quaid’s masterfully desolate turn as an abusive father and the maudlin—although enormously popular—song from which it’s adapted. Yet, with The Jesus Revolution, Erwin proves himself as an unassumingly talented director of movies–faith-based or otherwise.

Capturing the 60s-era religious movement made famous in a classic Time article, The Jesus Revolution follows Chuck Smith (Grammer), a pastor at a dying California church who decides to open his doors to hippies after his daughter (Ally Ioannides) brings hitchhiker Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) home for dinner. An alum of Haight-Ashbury, Frisbee turned to the Lord after a bad trip and dedicated his life to sharing the gospel with the era’s alienated Boomers. As Smith partners with Frisbee to spark a revolution, wayward teen Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney of The Kissing Booth and Super-8 fame) finds a home in the church and a calling as a minister while falling in love with bourgeois flower child Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow) and dealing with his negligent alcoholic mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley).

For its first hour, The Jesus Revolution hits all the typical beats of a Christian movie. As the church grows and prodigal sons and daughters come back to the Lord thanks to Smith’s forward-thinking, it seems as if the audience is in for yet another conversion narrative underneath such admirable artistry. Then, during a scene of a passionate Frisbee leading a revival, the film upends itself–suddenly positioning the counterculture hero it has built up as a potential fraud. Smith has a reactionary confrontation with his protégé, the fragile Greg has a dark night of the soul, and the entire enterprise seems primed for ruin.  

In a prestige Hollywood movie, the film’s second act would become an exposé of the seemingly anointed and self-satisfied through its takedown of defenders of the faith and, by extension, all who believe. Fortunately, The Jesus Revolution rises above obvious attempts at relevance and naked proselytizing. Like Martin Scorcese’s Silence or Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Erwin and McCorkle’s movie interrogates the gulf between idealized piety and inescapable human folly. Frisbee is neither fraud nor faith healer, but a well-intentioned man corrupted by ego (that Roumie plays Jesus Christ in the popular series The Chosen only adds to his character arc). Generations apart, but coming to terms with their purpose, Smith and Laurie realize that the search for meaning hinges on a life of fruitful failures and seemingly irrevocable mistakes.

A “faith-based film” couldn’t afford characters so compromised. Neither could current social-issues dramas that make up Hollywood’s oeuvre of films based on faith in itself. One could only imagine a version of Selma in which Martin Luther King, Jr.’s infidelities make him question his ability to lead rather than act as simple blackmail fodder for a racist caricature of J. Edgar Hoover. Or a cut of On the Basis of Sex in which Ruth Bader Ginsburg becomes haunted by the disparity between her Ivy League Northern milieu and the plight of the Southern working poor. Such would be the stuff of art, not awards.

Walking out of The Jesus Revolution, I recalled a surreal Easter service a decade ago at an East Tennessee megachurch. Out-of-context clips of Jesus’ torture from The Passion of the Christ flickered across the screen in an off-putting parade of violence as a pastor pleaded for all in attendance to follow the Lord. A teenager in front of me went to the altar after receiving some less-than-gentle nudging from the extended family around him. When the service ended, the congregation mobbed him as they spouted affirmations about how life would be much less of a burden. “Someone should tell him that now is when the real struggle begins,” I said to myself. For years, I’ve thought that someone should make a movie about that sentiment. Now, we have The Jesus Revolution.