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Movie Review: ‘I Can Only Imagine’

“I carry that. I have to live with that, you know. I always will.”
“Then write about it. Stop running from it. Let that pain become your inspiration.”

The brother team of Jon and Andrew Erwin (Mom’s Night Out, Woodlawn, October Baby) continue to grow their filmmaking skills in their powerful biographical drama about the life of Bart Millard, lead singer of the music group MercyMe, played by J. Michael Finley who makes his feature film debut. Some audiences may already know the events/results from Bart’s struggles during his budding music career, but filmmakers still make Millard’s journey worthwhile.

The “I Can Only Imagine” song has a unique perspective where it Bart describes what it would be like in Heaven and to be standing before God. Dennis Quaid portray’s Bart’s father, Arthur, an ex-football player who abuses Bart and his mother. The depictions of physical abuse are not long or particularly graphic but are frequently discussed as the emotions and mental distress stay at the forefront. It’s a tough balance where Quaid and the filmmakers cannot overwhelm audiences so they totally disconnect from Arthur yet are emotionally invested in his redemptive journey. “If God can forgive everyone else, why can’t He forgive me?” Arthur says.

Brody Rose plays Bart as a youngster who frequently escaped with music listening with his signature pair of orange Sony headphones. The filmmakers mention this need for escape again later when it’s unnecessary; the beginning sequences with Bart and his mother Adele, played by Tanya Clarke (A Beautiful Mind, TV’s Guiding Light, As the World Turns), are sufficient. Taegen Burns makes a great impression as Bart’s childhood friend Shannon.

Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote, Flipped) portrays Shannon as an adult and Cloris Leachman portrays Meemaw, Bart’s grandmother in a limited role. Both ladies get decent screen time, but their presence and connections with the other characters never really take a stronghold, unlike singer/actor Trace Adkins’s role as Scott Brickell, an authentic music manager.

Brickell provides the guidance and experience, Bart, as the band expands their audience. “I have the skin of a rhino,” Bart says as he impatiently awaits music executives to grant MercyMe the success that began with his high school teacher, Mrs. Fincher, played by Priscilla Shirer (War Room).

The people’s reaction to this greatest-selling contemporary Christian song of all time is the heart of this film. Bart’s seemingly tragic life journey results in a selfless, positive act that shows hope, love, and grace to the world. The effects this song on other people in the ending (radio station intros, audio clips, letter, and other historical elements) has the highest emotional impact. Filmmakers keep it very short, which enhances the impact.

Set in Texas, this film begins with a key point in Bart’s life then transitions to the beginning of his life story in 1985 and picks up at the key point later. The plot is written by Jon Erwin, newcomer Alex Cramer and director/composer/editor and frequent Erwin Brother film collaborator Brent McCorkle (Unconditional).

This plot contends with issues of power and control as well as survival and overcoming big challenges. Audiences feel authentic, raw emotion without manipulation and any unnecessary menace. Timelines and specifics blend into the characters’ actions and different events (songwriting, MercyMe’s progression as a band, etc.)

Guitarists Michael Scheuchzer and Barry Graual, percussionist Robby Shaffer and bassist Nathan Cochran don’t get much character development but do get some memorable moments along with cameos of other famous music stars like Michael W. Smith (Jake B. Miller) and Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort).

Filmed in Oklahoma, this recommended (*** out of four stars) film mirrors the title song as a surprise success that’s touching many lives in deep ways and prompting action from audiences with resources like chataboutfaith.com (text or chat) and 800-HELP-4-ME at the end. The 110-minute, faith-based I Can Only Imagine had a 7 million dollar budget and was released/distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. Rated PG for thematic elements including some violence.

MercyMe just released I Can Only Imagine – The Very Best of MercyMe, which features 13 songs from the band including “The Movie Session” version of “I Can Only Imagine”.

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