Last year’s faith-based hit Breakthrough highlighted a highly faith-friendly account, based on a true story, of a medical miracle granted in response to prayer.
I Still Believe, also based on a true story, presents a more challenging narrative of a miraculous healing that, in spite of much prayer by many people, is not granted.
Actually, it’s more difficult than that: It seems there is a miracle, the kind that leaves surgeons dumbfounded and offers hope where there was none. But the reprieve is cruelly brief. One might be tempted to wonder whether such a short-lived idyll is worse than none at all — whether the knife of facing death and loss was only twisted by a gift of hope beyond hope.
While it ends on an uplifting, faith-affirming note, along the way I Still Believe wrestles more with doubt, pain and disappointment with God than most films of this type.
The title is taken from a memoir by contemporary Christian music (CCM) artist Jeremy Camp, by way of his hit song written after the death of his first wife, Melissa, whom he married after she was diagnosed with stage-4 ovarian cancer.
That makes it the second fact-based film from the Erwin brothers (October Baby; Woodlawn) about a Christian musician named for a hit CCM song, after their 2018 smash I Can Only Imagine. (The Erwins shot Christian music videos before making feature films, and CCM is a constant presence in their work. The story was adapted by Jon Erwin with Jon Gunn, who co-wrote and directed Mercy Streets and directed The Case for Christ.)
Jeremy and Melissa are played by Riverdale star KJ Apa and Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland), who previously played love interests as teenaged versions of Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton in A Dog’s Purpose. (Quaid played the protagonist’s father in I Can Only Imagine; Camp’s father, a pastor, is played by Gary Sinise. Casting their biggest Hollywood star in the father role has been a signature Erwin move ever since John Schneider played the father in October Baby.)
Notwithstanding its real-life origins, I Still Believe is framed as something of an evangelical answer to the dying-girlfriend teen drama The Fault in Our Stars, from the copycat movie poster (a high-angle medium close-up of the lovers lying with their heads together, each upside down to the other) to the recurring star motif.
Where the protagonists of The Fault in Our Stars muddled agnostically through a search for meaning in a narrative world in which religious hope is elusive at best, the couple in I Still Believe find the certainties of the faith that has surrounded and penetrated them all their lives shaken.
While the film doesn’t precisely pin down the characters’ theological milieu, there’s a naivete to their hope for a miracle that doesn’t quite cross into prosperity-gospel presumption, but implicitly invokes it and invites its cross-examination.
Perhaps the most wrenching moment comes toward the end, as dying Melissa, who has worked her way through heartache, joy, anxiety and acceptance, insists in a clouded moment that God has healed her, that the cancer is gone.
As earnestly as the spiritual conflict is handled, opportunities to flesh out the humanity of the characters through other forms of conflict or struggle are overlooked.
How do you make it in the Christian music world? When Jeremy first arrives at Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, California, where he meets his musical hero, veteran Christian rocker Jean-Luc La Joie (Nathan Dean Parsons) of the Kry, he puts this question to him.
Jean-Luc’s high-minded answer is that it’s the wrong question: It’s not about making it but about what you want to give to others. Write what you love, Jean-Luc advises on another occasion, adding, “Hasten the day,” a glib shorthand allusion to 2 Peter 3:12, which talks about “looking for and hastening the day of the Lord.”
The hard reality that plenty of people who have internalized such lessons never get the breaks, much less what those breaks look like, isn’t acknowledged here — beyond the implicit reality that it helps to know an established star who can open doors for you.
This, though, occasions bigger missed opportunities.
The one real hitch in Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship — the only real complication in Jeremy’s life, really, other than Melissa’s cancer — is Melissa’s prior platonic bond with Jean-Luc.
It seems Jean-Luc has developed romantic feelings for Melissa, and, while she doesn’t return them, she also doesn’t want to hurt him, which makes her reluctant to get involved with Jeremy.
“Permission to speak freely?” Jeremy asks, sounding more like a character in a military drama, or at least a Star Trek nerd, than a romantic lead in a tearjerker. “What if this is destiny? What if we were supposed to meet, and we were supposed to feel this way about each other, and God wants us to run toward it, not away from it?”
Remember what I said about theological naivete? These notions of “destiny” and how people are “supposed” to feel is no way to think about romantic possibilities. Alas, none of this is cross-examined.
At first, in any case, Jeremy is more than happy for the opportunity to pursue Melissa even clandestinely, but as time passes he begins to resent his secret-boyfriend status.
Perhaps the most realistic exchange is the quarrel after an awkward meet-the-parents scene, with Melissa accusing Jeremy of being embarrassed by his family (Jeremy’s kid brother Josh has Down syndrome and is prone to awkward remarks). To this Jeremy retorts that what embarrasses him is that Melissa doesn’t want anyone to know that they’re dating.
It’s a realistic exchange, not only because the lovers can’t agree even on what they’re fighting about, but also because neither perspective may be the whole truth, and both may be angry at themselves as much as at the other.
When Jean-Luc offers still-unknown Jeremy a golden opportunity to record a professional studio demo, though, neither the film nor Jeremy stops to consider that Jeremy too has a vested interest in not wanting to hurt Jean-Luc. If his relationship with Melissa were revealed, would Jeremy’s musical aspirations continue to benefit from his friendship with Jean-Luc? Real life is full of such compromising complications, but I Still Believe isn’t interested in this.
The filmmakers’ disinterest in mundane forms of conflict is reflected in smaller ways: When Jeremy, at the end of their first ambiguous date, walks Melissa to her dorm-room door and hesitates over going for a good-night kiss, my immediate thought was how unlikely this would have been at a conservative Christian college circa 2000, which would definitely have had sex-segregated dorm houses. (Oh look, Camp confirms this.)
It’s a case in point in the film’s complete avoidance of the topic of sexuality — hardly a non-issue for dating conservative Christians who believe in waiting till marriage, especially as Jeremy and Melissa begin planning their wedding.
None of which will prevent the film from working for its target audience. In spite of often clumsy dialogue, Apa and Robertson are persuasively adorable, and the intensity of their hopes for Melissa’s healing will land emotionally for anyone who has ever sought to storm heaven with fervent prayers for a miracle that never materialized.
Jeremy and Melissa lack the Catholic vocabulary to talk about offering up sufferings small and great in union with the passion of Christ for the benefit of others, but within their own framework they work as best they can toward the idea that our sufferings have a place in God’s grand design.
The most winsome thing to me about I Still Believe is its frank awareness that suffering and evil are mysteries that go beyond our best theological and philosophical answers and that trust in God goes beyond our ability to explain or comprehend. The mysteries of human nature, though, and of the world in all its untidy awkwardness and sharp edges still elude the Erwins.
Caveat Spectator: Mild depiction of serious illness, death, grief and religious questioning. Tweens and up.