Friday, December 26, 2014

Facing the Giants: A Review


FACING THE GIANTS

I'm open about the fact that I'm the most wavering Christian.  When it comes to films, I am an 'art before theology' critic.  I will not give a 'Christian' film a pass merely because the people in front and behind it are fellow believers.  Facing the Giants is another of Pastor Alex Kendrick's determined efforts to marry theology with cinema, and his track record has been pretty hit-and-miss.   I was no fan of Courageous, but felt something like The Lost Medallion was tolerable.  The fact that the latter was made for children and the former for adults may be a reason for my views on both those films. 

Pastor Kendrick, bless him, at least is determined to use film to share, if not strictly his faith, his worldview where positive, faith-affirming stories can be seen by fellow believers.  Facing the Giants is if nothing else, sincere and open about where it's coming from.  I cannot trash it for that. 

It also comes from the Kendrick Brothers, who show that in their second feature (Courageous being their fourth but surprisingly similar in almost every way) they still live in a shockingly insular world, one that is almost all-white, unaware of anything approaching human frailties, stubborn in its heavy-handedness, and determined to get in as many clichés as possible, both Christian and secular.

Coach Grant Taylor (writer/director/editor Kendrick) is facing yet another tough football season.  He is in danger of being replaced by a growing number of irate parents and alumni, and his wife Brooke (Shannen Fields) cannot conceive.  Certainly Grant is not having a good life already, but with a faulty car that dies often and players that leave their senior year it looks like Grant is besieged. 

It doesn't help that we find that the reason the Taylors haven't had children yet is because Grant can't produce. He's not a man, he's not a coach, he's an all-around failure.

Grant then does what perhaps he should have done a long time ago: let go and let God (see, I can speak Christianese).  He's come up with a new team philosophy: the team at Shiloh Christian Academy will now play for the Glory of God.  If they win, the team will praise Him.  If they lose, the team will praise Him.

Allow me to stop for a moment to observe that the football team at a Christian school apparently never prayed before a game, or attended Bible studies, or even apparently attended church.


Christian Cinema's Orson Welles, or Ed Wood?

Well, as soon as the team starts playing with a new attitude and focus,  all sorts of wonders begin occurring.  There is a revival among the students, with kids coming to Christ left right and center.  Among those kids is angry Matt (James Blackwell), who now has respect for his father.  Also affected is David Childers (Bailey Cave), a former soccer star who is the hesitant kicker and who has a wheelchair-bound father. 

The Shiloh Eagles also start winning games, a lot of them, enough to get to the playoffs.  Rather than be satisfied that he now has a winning season (and I figure has silenced his critics), through some bizarre series of circumstances Grant and the Eagles now manage to go to State, where they will, you guessed it, Face the Giants and their bull-like coach.

In a nice twist, following the advise of not just planting the seed but preparing for rain, guess who is about to be a father?

Will Coach Grant and the Eagles truly defeat the Giants? Will the 145 pound kicker named David be able to slay the mighty Goliaths and win one for the team? 

Can a wheelchair-bound man be able to stand on his own two feet?

When I first finished Facing the Giants I wasn't prepared to write it off completely.  Yes, it had problems (which I'll get into in a bit) but at least it was sincere, a product of a particular vision that if nothing else, I respected for working to present it to the world.  However, as time went on I found Facing the Giants kept stumbling on itself, in ways both large and small.

Let's start with the performances.  Alex Kendrick, despite himself, finds it difficult to 'act'.  Of particular note is when he goes out into the fields, Bible in hand, and decides to fully rely on God (FROG).  His monologue with God was curiously so flat because it was almost totally devoid of real emotion.  I wouldn't say it wasn't sincere, but it was forced and obviously fake.  'Acting' requires one to behave as if he/she were the character, not themselves.  Kendrick, here and in Courageous, stubbornly refuses to 'act'.  He will not 'become' the character.  Instead, he will speak the words he and his brother Stephen wrote almost by rote, as if he has to get them in one take or lose film.  Alex Kendrick, as actor and director, shows why any film, even a Christian film, needs professionals who know what to do in front and behind the camera.


There wasn't a single good performance in Facing the Giants.  Fields in particular was appallingly bad, her Brooke not being able to muster anything to have us care, let alone believe her situation.  I did think nicely of Cave, who while still being amateurish at least made a stab at playing his fearful character.   

On a side note, I think it is remarkably narcissistic of Kendrick to focus all his films on himself/his characters.  Facing the Giants I think would have been improved dramatically if the story focused on David (apart from the obvious parallels to the story of David and Goliath). Here was a new kid to Shiloh, who lost his mom, who had a wheelchair-bound dad, and who kept doubting himself due to his lack of football skills and small stature.  Certainly seeing a film where a young man struggles to become better I think would make a more interesting movie than about a middle-aged balding man who is facing a career and personal crisis FROG his way to success (and even grow stronger sperm).

Why Alex Kendrick insists on making almost all his films center around his characters I'll never quite understand. I have my own theories (he is too shallow to see beyond his own worldview), but for the moment almost every Kendrick Brothers feature will make Alex Kendrick the star, despite his inability to act or draw realistic performances from his 'actors'.

Facing the Giants has other issues, greater issues.  For one, despite the title the Giants were never a real threat because they didn't appear until the last game.  We never saw the Eagles see how good the Giants were, or the Giants wonder about these up-and-comers.  We were merely told early in the film that the Giants had won three state championships in a row, and then we forgot about them until the end.  Truth be told, I had completely forgotten about this fearsome football team until the end, when we were reminded that they existed. 

The final confrontation therefore was immediately left without any sense of urgency or interest because the didn't appear to be real threats to Shiloh.



However, the most appalling thing about the well-meaning but bumbling Facing the Giants, or at least the thing that made me cringe, was how Kendrick treats minorities.  Kendrick's world both in 2006 and 2013 is almost all-white.  In Courageous, there is a Hispanic character who is asked by the Kendrick character if he has 'permission to work'.  If Kendrick had asked ME that, I'd have bitch-slapped him, pastor or no pastor, told him to shove his 'permission' up his ass, and then walked away. 

As a Hispanic, I don't find some balding white man suggesting that I'm an illegal amusing.

With Facing the Giants, we had exactly ONE minority in the entire film.  That would be Chris Willis as assistant coach J.T. Hawkins, Jr.  When I say "exactly one minority in the entire film", I don't mean one minority with a speaking part.  I mean exactly that: in a film that takes place in Georgia, there is apparently only one black person in the entire STATE!  All the football players at Shiloh Christian Academy are white.  I think all the fans watching (and SCA alumni) are all-white.  All the opposing team members, up to the Giants, are all-white.

How do you have an all-white team in Georgia?  How do you have an all-white school in Georgia?  I don't mean 'almost all-white', with a few minorities.  I mean literally ALL WHITE?!

If that just wasn't bad enough, Willis is saddled with the most clichéd and stereotypical role this side of Birth of a Nation.  Willis' major scene involves him slipping into 'preacher' mode to motivate David, right down to the other assistant coach virtually shouting, "Preach it".  The music did not help matters in making this scene particularly regressive.  When Coach Taylor gets a new pickup truck to replace his dying car (which looks like it was cribbed from Stand and Deliver), Willis actually utters, "Somebody done gave you a new truck".  I swore I thought he was going to add, "Yessa Massa Grant". 

I know no African-American who speaks like that.  It brings to mind how Denzel Washington in Malcolm X mocked blacks who disagreed with them by invoking what the 'house negro' would sound like. 

Seriously, if Alex Kendrick wants to be taken seriously and lift his filmmaking to sensible levels, he needs to acknowledge that the whole world is not like his house: white, Christian, and virtually free from sin.  Kendrick will never acknowledge that Christians, especially young ones, are aware of the world outside church, one with sin, with drugs, with premarital sex (or the word 'sex'), violence, anger, and all sorts of assorted evils.  

Facing the Giants, if nothing else, comes from the heart.  Again, I won't condemn it for that.  Was I entertained?  Yes.  Do I know it could have all been better?  Yes, and it didn't have to be condescending either.  It was OK, not terrible, but one hopes that the Kendrick Brothers work towards making actual films versus what they do no: cinematic versions of sermons.

The Good Book deserves a Good Script...

DECISION: C- 

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