Thursday, November 14, 2019

Overcomer: A Review


I have at times been highly critical of the cinematic work of writer/director Alex Kendrick in many aspects: cinematic, social, even theological. Sometimes I, the most wavering and flawed of Christians, have been appalled at what Kendrick and his brother Stephen create in the name of the Lord. I have never questioned their faith, but their creative abilities.

Having seen many of their films, I can say that Overcomer, the Kendrick Brothers' newest film, is their most polished and dare I say, professional work. It is still flawed in some respects, but Overcomer at least shows a growth in their style that should be if not applauded at least appreciated.

Christian school teacher/basketball coach John Harrison (Alex Kendrick) thinks this will be his year until the local factory closes down. Little by little his players' families decide to leave, causing professional, financial and personal strains on both John and his wife, fellow teacher Amy (Shari Rigby). The school's director Olivia Brooks (Priscilla C. Shirer) turns over the long-distance track to him over his doubts.

Making things worse is that only one girl showed up for tryouts: Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson). Making things more worse is that Hannah is asthmatic, but she is also fast. Unbeknownst to everyone save her grandmother Barbara (Denise Armstrong), Hannah is something of a kleptomaniac. Soon John starts developing a respect for long-distance running and Hannah starts being so internal.

Image result for overcomer movieCoincidentally, this is also when John meets Thomas Hill (Cameron Arnett), a hospital patient suffering from the effects of rampant diabetes. Though he is blind, he can see, having undergone a spiritual awakening prior to his hospital stay. Thomas pushes John into questioning who he is, what his own Christianity is, how it affects his world, worldview and relationship with John's two sons. This strengthens John's own faith.

John also finds that Thomas is Hannah's biological father, who abandoned her to Barbara when he and Hannah's mother went deep into drug addiction. Barbara, blaming him for her daughter's death, had told Hannah both her parents were dead. Now John and Amy struggle in how to handle this situation. Ultimately, Hannah and Thomas begin a secret rapprochement that has consequences for all concerned. There's doubt, fear, a separate embrace of Jesus Christ, and the state championship.

It's a curious thing that the first thing I notice with regards to Overcomer is that the Kendrick Brothers have certain traits in their films that they repeat. Overcomer and Facing the Giants both have Alex as a coach in a Christian school. Overcomer and Courageous both have Alex with a wife and two children (though mercifully both sons in Overcomer live to the end). Almost all their films have the Alex Kendrick character have a spiritual awakening that makes him better all-around. War Room is an exception in that Alex Kendrick was not the main character, but the male lead character had that transformation.

Image result for overcomer movieIt may appear formulaic, and there is validity in that thought; perhaps another time I will analyze the repeated themes and beats of the Kendrick Brothers' work closer. However, Overcomer is a step forward for them in that slowly, the focus of the film shifted from John to Hannah to where he began to fade. He did not leave the film entirely, but the transition to Hannah and Thomas slipped surprisingly smoothly.

Unlike their past films, Overcomer does not focus on John's crisis of faith, helped by a 'magical Negro'. Instead, it is about the transformation of Hannah, who has all these people float into her life. Surprisingly, rather than make things unbalanced it works to the film's advantage, as we see that neither the Harrisons or the Scotts are 'saving' the other.

Overcomer is probably the Kendricks' smartest film in that these characters are human. Oftentimes the Kendricks had difficulty on two fronts: social and racial. In prior films, their characters did not actually 'sin': they never drank, smoked, had premarital sexual relationships, let alone mentioned them.

Here, there is a greater openness to human frailty. Thomas admits drugs and women brought him ruin. Hannah steals, sometimes brazenly. John actually shouts at his wife. Their two sons worry about their parents' marriage and know enough to not interrupt when they are either in argument or in prayer. It's a compliment to both brothers that this very delicate situation of introducing a girl to her hereto absent father was handled with intelligence and tact.

Overcomer also moves away from the virtually all-white world they had created in past films. If Facing the Giants was to be believed, there were no black people in the state of Georgia. Here, Kendrick not only focused on African-Americans, they went one or two better. First, they were in positions of authority and two, they were not stereotypes. They were flawed but they on the whole were a massive improvement over what they have done in the past.

Image result for overcomer movie
Acting-wise Overcomer still has some stumbling blocks. This is probably Alex Kendrick's best performance in that he didn't look like he was acting. John is not a walking sermon. He even takes some stabs at dry comedy, as when he's continuously roped into judging bad drama monologues. Shirer's Principal Brooks is more believable when leading Hannah in prayer but in her small role she did quite well. Arnett's Thomas was moving, bringing the regret of his past with the joy of his salvation.

I thought well also of Wright-Thompson given this is her debut, her Hannah being appropriately detached from much. In another debut film role, Jack Sterner had good moments as Ethan, John and Amy's older son, appropriately comic when showing he could run just as well as Hannah (here's the joke: he couldn't) and appropriately wise when assuring his younger brother that their parents would be all right after a strong argument.

As I reflect on Overcomer, I can see its flaws. Even as a Christian (weak and wavering as I am), the 'salvation' scene seemed a bit heavy-handed to preachy. However, I can also see the audience's reaction. There were sobs, cheers and even applause at the climatic racing sequence. I can't fault a film for knowing its audience and making a film for them.

Overcomer may not achieve any new converts to the message of Christ, but it is faith affirming for those who already do believe. It works well for what it is: an inspirational film that should please both Christian and Christian-friendly audiences (or at least audiences that are not overtly hostile to films revolving around faith).


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