April 15, 2011
'Why Are Christian Movies So Awful?'
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir asks the question, but he's picking on the wrong movie
A few months ago, we ran a blog post titled, "Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?", prompted by a thought-provoking article of the same title over at Relevant magazine.a new essay by Andrew O'Hehir at Salon; the only difference, of course, is that "bad" has been replaced by "awful." Maybe it's just a matter of semantics, and to an extent, I agree with the writers of both essays. There are a lot of crummy Christian movies; ugh, I've certainly seen enough of them.
What I completely disagree with, however, when it comes to O'Hehir's article, is his "hook": He's jumped on Soul Surfer as an excuse to write his opinions, and for that, I think he's wrong. O'Hehir calls the film "a trite, sentimental puddle of sub-Hollywood mush, with mediocre photography, weak special effects and an utterly formulaic script. . . . [T]his one is pretty awful."
I don't think Soul Surfer is a great movie; I'm pretty sure it won't be considered for our Critics' Choice list at the end of the year (though it'll be a strong candidate for our Most Redeeming list). It's not great, but it is very good. And if, as O'Hehir suggests, it is to be labeled a "Christian movie" -- and frankly, I could argue either way on that point -- I would say it's one of the best ones we've seen in years.
Our critic gave it three stars (out of four) -- somewhere between a B-minus and a B, if this were a grading scale. (3.5 stars would be B-plus to A-minus, 4 stars would be A to A-plus, for comparison's sake.)
Let's try to look at things a bit more objectively than O'Hehir does. Soul Surfer has a 53 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes -- meaning that 53 percent of the 74 critics compiled so far gave it a positive review, and 47 percent gave it a negative. ("Positive could mean anything from barely making the cut to thinking it's the best thing since sliced bread; I think the film falls somewhere in between. Conversely, "negative" means anything from barely missing the cut to "I hated it.")
Some of the nation's top critics liked the movie (Entertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times), but many did not. But why didn't they like it? I don't have time for a full analysis here, but here's what Roger Ebert wrote in his 2.5 star (out of four) review:
My problem with "Soul Surfer" is that it makes it look too simple. Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) has a loving family of professional surfers and a big, friendly dog. She lives in walking distance of the beach. She was and is a committed churchgoer and got great support from her spiritual leaders. She was an indomitable optimist with a fierce competitive spirit.
But there had to be more to it than that. I applaud her faith and spirit. I give her full credit for her determination. I realize she is a great athlete. But I feel something is missing. There had to be dark nights of the soul. Times of grief and rage. The temptation of nihilism. The lure of despair. Can a 13-year-old girl lose an arm and keep right on smiling?The flaw in the storytelling strategy of "Soul Surfer" is that it doesn't make Bethany easy to identify with. She's almost eerie in her optimism. Her religious faith is so unshaken, it feels taken for granted. The film feels more like an inspirational parable than a harrowing story of personal tragedy.
Ebert's skepticism is understandable. I've asked many of the same questions myself, even when I interviewed Bethany Hamilton, the title character: Didn't you get angry at God? Didn't you struggle with your faith? How could you and your family make it look so simple? Ebert is right to wonder about these things, but he can't blame the movie for them. I have spent time with the Hamiltons and with Bethany, and it IS uncanny how "simple" they've allowed this incredible experience to play out. A rock-solid but "simple" (er, childlike) faith somehow kept Bethany from experience those "dark nights of the soul" and "times of grief and rage" that Ebert wanted to see. I know I certainly would've have experienced those things. But again, don't blame the film -- those are questions for Bethany and her family, not for the filmmakers or scriptwriters. They're not making this stuff up.
Also, I think Ebert oversimplifies. If he were to watch the movie again, he'd see the scene where Bethany tearfully asks her youth pastor how this could possibly be a part of God's plan. She is downcast and troubled in the hospital (a scene which Bethany says was trumped up a bit, because she wasn't really all that sad). She worries that people will see her as a freak. She storms away from one competition, so upset about her circumstances that she says she'll never surf again (also fictional -- apparently the filmmakers tried to find those "times of grief and rage," and couldn't find them!)
Anyway, I'm not picking on Ebert. I'm picking on O'Hehir. Soul Surfer is a good, maybe even a very good, movie. And it is definitely NOT the place to start picking on "Christian films." I could name at least a dozen (or 50 or 100) places to start, but this ain't it.