Sunday, May 11, 2014
It's A Wonderful Christian Life
I reflected on some of the Christian films I have seen when I thought about the controversy over Alone Yet Not Alone's surprise (and later rescinded) Best Original Song Oscar nomination. I have been vocal that the nomination was removed in part because the Academy was horrified at the prospect that an overtly Christian film with an overtly Christian/religious message was a contender for an Oscar. It had no chance of winning, but still, that was a risk too great to bear. Best Original Song winners can have the N-Word (It's Hard Out Here for A Pimp from Hustle & Flow) and cursing (Lose Yourself from 8 Mile), but any mention of "God" (no matter how vague or innocuous) would be far too offensive.
In any case, thinking about how the religious nature of Alone Yet Not Alone sent Hollywood into fits of panic made me think about the Christian film industry in general. There is such a thing as a 'Christian film industry', and I know many of my believer friends have wondered why there aren't more faith-based films. Simply put, they are if not downright awful, simply working in and from a parallel universe. Those making 'Christian films' (I'm looking at you, Alex Kendrick) think only about the message, not the delivery. They rarely if ever get actual actors, they refuse to take real-life situations seriously and address them as such, and sometimes I wonder who exactly they make these movies for. If they make them for themselves, then I can't find much fault in the films. If they make them for the 'secular' world, then we (Christian filmmakers and I, semi-Christian reviewer) really need to talk.
Second Glance is a film that I do enjoy, but I also am not blind to its faults. Second Glance is like a very earnest Afterschool Special for an 80s youth group (given that it was made in 1992, that just makes it even more hokey). I should point out that I was never invited to a Youth Group, so I have very little to draw from. However, I think Second Glance wouldn't get a second look from the youth I know, finding things in the film both unrealistic and even a bit camp. Still, I enjoy watching Second Glance, flaws and all.
In a nutshell, Second Glance is an evangelical version of It's A Wonderful Life. Dan Burgess (David A.R. White) is a Christian youth who finds his faith gets in the way of many things he'd like to enjoy. He doesn't (or can't, or isn't allowed to) go to any parties, is mocked by Doug (Lance Zitron), the nonbeliever who is the Big Guy on Campus, he can't date Tamara (Denise Weatherly) the prettiest girl in school (because she sees him as only a 'nice guy') and his Fellowship of Christian Athletes club is not lighting the campus on fire as he'd hoped.
Side note: given how scrawny Dan is, how he got involved with the FCA is beyond me.
In any case, after a misunderstanding causes Dan to get suspended, he complains that he's missing out all the fun. "No, you're missing out all the sin," his dad rebukes. That night, he wishes he had never become a Believer. The next day, we find that his 'prayer' has been granted. Muriel (Blaine Pickett), an angel, tells him that he now has received a great gift: to see what his life would have been like if he had never accepted Christ.
From here, we see that he is also a Big Man on Campus, with Tamara by his side but not afraid to fool around on the side. He and his friends, like Doug, cause good teachers to quit in disgust, the FCA has been replaced by a sewing club (the horror!) and Scotty (John Jimerson), the kid Dan led to Christ, well, let's just say he didn't make it. We also learn that his parents divorced (since his prayers at times were the only things keeping them together) and his sister never born. It all culminates in a party where Dan's cheating is exposed, with his girl on the side's thick-headed boyfriend Bull (Jim Whitehead) about to kill him. Fleeing to a church, Dan finds things restored to as before. Muriel then reappears, telling him how terrible his life would have been if he hadn't become a Believer.
He would have had 'intimacy' with Tamara!
His faith restored, Dan now continues serving the Lord in his high school, ending with telling Scotty, "Jesus, Man!" (which I understand became an Internet meme and a point of mockery).
Cinema Sins would have a field day with Second Glance because production-wise, it comes almost completely across as amateurish and inept to the point of parody. Director Rich Christiano (whom I've always wondered if he changed his name specifically to reflect his faith or was just mere happy coincidence) made a Sunday School lecture into a film, but one that will appeal to no one outside those pre-teens for whom Second Glance apparently is aimed or those who might find all this laughably amusing.
Second Glance, for example, refuses to acknowledge the real world. Dan at one point in his non-believer life is told that his side-girl is pregnant, then is immediately relieved of this when she tells him it was a lie to get him to dump Tamara. This leads me to think that Christiano is so Christian that he and his fellow screenwriters (four in total) couldn't bring themselves to recognize things like pre-marital sex happens.
Hate to break it to you boys, but even Christian teens have sex before marriage. Personal experience has shown me that those people I know who wore 'promise rings' lost their virginities to people not their spouses earlier than those people I know who are if not downright atheists are at least non-believers. Things like this (among others) leads me to wonder exactly who the audience for Second Glance is. It isn't non-believers who would see this as a conversion tool: beyond the technical ineptness (editing choices that rush through the story, a montage of amateurish acting, plot points that sometimes don't make any sense). It might be for believers, but certainly adult believers (such as myself) would find a lot of this downright camp and highly preachy.
The worst moment to show this is with Muriel's big speech. Pickett (who looks like Kevin Nealon), comes across as smug and out-of-touch. His was probably the worst performance: an angel who looks and behaves more like Mr. Spock than Clarence, a know-it-all who lectures Dan rather than guides him. He gives him information about other characters which the screenplay has given no clues about (such as how Doug, the bully, is really also searching for truth and reading the Bible in an effort to do so). His big speech about how good Dan has it is also afraid of reality. All this talk of 'having intimacy' comes across as idiotic, for rather than take the situation seriously and say "sex", Muriel acts as if carnal knowledge itself is a sin, rather than carnal knowledge outside of marriage being the sin.
Even worse and more disastrously, Second Glance undercuts its very own premise again and again. It tells us, for example, that Dan's parents divorced because it was his prayers were the things keeping them together. That in and of itself doesn't bother me: I'm a firm believer that prayers are answered. However, when we see Dan's mother going off on her 'date', she actually looks happy! Worse, she looks happier than she did when she was with her husband! As for losing his sister, given how they were always at loggerheads it is a bit surprising that he would mourn her loss all that much.
Another bizarre situation involves Dan's best friend and fellow FCA Ricky (Skip Stewart). He encourages Dan to ask Tamara out even though a.) she appears to be going out with Doug, and b.) she is not a Christian. Having heard ad nauseam about being 'unequally yoked' (i.e. not dating non-believers), it is astonishing to me that a CHRISTIAN film would have a character ENCOURAGE someone to date outside the faith.
Perhaps the worst aspect theologically to Second Glance is that Dan never actually has a 'come-to-Jesus' moment where he prays/pleads to have his old life restored. The closest he gets to it is rushing to the locked church desperate to get in. However, it appears he is doing this more to get away from a rampaging Bull than a sincere acknowledgement of the reality of Christ. For a film whose whole message is how life is better with Christ than without, not having the character admit this with his tongue so to speak is disastrous and a sign of either the film being rushed or simply not thought through.
There is even more wrong as a film with Second Glance. Keith Vivrette's score is in turns cheesy and a bit of a rip-off of Dead Poets Society. Again, FOUR screenwriters appear to have no understanding of how human behavior works. More plot points that don't make any sense (having the somewhat harsh teacher quit because non-believer Dan and his friends messed with his car seems downright insane, let alone their decision to go to the restaurant said teacher now works at).
Another side note: this teacher is so angry he asks another server to wait on his table. Is that possible?
Despite all the ineptness, craziness, even idiocy of Second Glance, I have a soft place in my heart for it. To quote Sophia Petrillo, its heart is in the right place, but I don't know where its brain is.
Cheesy and heavy (or perhaps, Heavenly) handed, with almost universally bad performances and a story that comes from another dimension, Second Glance isn't a good film. I admit to finding it all entertaining because it does try and is sincere. Fortunately, Christian filmmaking has advanced far beyond Second Glance to where they are actually good and technically proficient.
Who would have guessed David White would be the bridge that spans from something as clumsy but well-intentioned like Second Glance to something well-intentioned and well-made like God's Not Dead?