The landscape of evangelical Christianity is littered with things that can be cannon fodder for good humor. Just look at stuffchristianslike.net. Over the summer I saw a preview for Believe Me and was instantly hooked. I was curious as to whether it would be too tame or a no-holds-barred look at how the sincerity of believers can sometimes make them gullible to people looking to take advantage of them. Would it knowingly nod to a lot of Christian culture or would it openly mock? As it turns out, the movie ends up somewhere in the middle.
Sam, Pierce, Tyler, and Baker are four college seniors about to graduate from a school in Texas. Sam (Alex Russell) finds out from his admissions office (a great small cameo by Nick Offerman) that he owes more money than his scholarship covered and needs to find $9000 to get his diploma, money he just doesn’t have, especially on such short notice. Desperate and distracted, Sam joins Pierce at a church function they were invited to by two college co-eds. He hears from a girl there that she is looking for donations to raise money for a summer mission trip to Hawaii, which elicits a skeptical scoff from Pierce. When Sam finds out how much she has raised in such a short period of time (about $16,000 of her $20,000 goal), he hatches an idea to embezzle money through a fake mission project for clean water in Africa. He manages to rope his three friends into it, and it is a big success. It also catches the eye of a Christian promoter (Christopher McDonald) who wants them to become the centerpiece in his touring summer program to raise missions awareness on a 27-city tour. Their effort draw the attention of Callie (Johanna Bradley), an actual mission worker in Africa involved with the tour, and the skepticism of Gabriel (Zachary Knighton), the worship leader of the tour.
The movie is a comedy with some dramatic elements, especially as the lie grows bigger and bigger and becomes more and more unsustainable and some of the guys start to feel guilty about what they are doing. A lot of humor is derived from the Christian culture these four guys unwittingly immerse themselves in and quickly realize that they are out of their depth and can’t just make it up as they go along. There is a great montage that shows the four of them putting in the extra effort to get the lingo down, understand what food situations should require prayer and which do not, the ways that people raise their hands when they are praising and singing. All of this is a credit to the director, Will Bakke, and his co-writer Michael B. Allen. They are clearly coming at this as people who know and have experienced this culture (This is their first feature after two documentaries, according to IMDB). It manages to walk the fine line between being mocking commentary and tame prodding. Gabriel explanation of why his song about Jesus only has the word “Jesus” in it almost made me cry from laughter. There’s also an enjoyable cameo by Christian rapper Lecrae, parodying the kind of faith-based movie that a movie like this could be.
Aside from McDonald and Offerman, the rest of the cast are mostly lesser known actors. Alex Russell was in 2012’s impressive found-footage film Chronicle. Johanna Bradley was in one of the Paranormal Activity movies. Here, they are all capable. Sinqua Walls does a good job as Tyler, effectively expressing his concerns and guilt over what they are doing. Miles Fisher (Pierce) has some good entertaining lines, but sometimes comes across as giving a Tom Cruise impression, especially in a confrontation between Sam and Pierce. All four of the guys go through a transformation over the course of the movie, and but they’re not all complete arcs necessarily. For Pierce and Baker, their eventual change of heart requires faith on the part of the viewer, because it’s not all there on-screen.
The film shines a light on the subject of in whom people are putting their faith. It’s easy to be caught up in the words of an eloquent speaker or a good singer. But unless they are pointing people to someone other than themselves, peoples’ faith is misplaced. Too often, that results in people becoming disappointed or jaded with Christianity because, invariably, people will let you down. Scandals rock churches to their foundations sometimes. And there are people out there looking to exploit the generosity of folks who want to contribute to Christian causes around the world. The film ends on a bit of an ambiguous note, but one that I found slightly optimistic because of the change in character these four guys have experienced by the end.
The film ultimately succeeds for me on the strength of the film’s treatment of its subject matter. It would be easy to merely mock and laugh at some of the Christian stereotypes on display here, but the film doesn’t stop there. It shows the sincerity of faith of a lot of the people involved in this tour. They live out their faith and their faith feels genuine, so you believe the guilt the guys begin to feel more and more as the story progresses. Believe Me is the type of faith-based movie I wish more people made and a promising first feature film for the director.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars