As I've revealed in these pages before, I'm always leery of reviewing the so-called faith-based dramas that Christian production companies send me. Christian film reviewers don't generally enjoy criticizing the work of fellow believers, and our objections tend toward the redundant: The performances aren't great; the production values aren't up to Hollywood standards; nobody but the choir is going to enjoy the preachy story.
But none of these things are what really keeps Christian films from reaching audiences outside the pews. Plenty of mainstream directors have created gripping movies with just as little talent and money at their disposal. And plenty such films are just as pushy with their agendas.
No, the reason that equally low-budget secular films are often so much more compelling is because they get sin right-the lure of it, the cost of it, and the beauty human beings are capable of when, for brief moments, they rise above it. They're likewise exacting in exploring variations of emotional pain. These depictions can be enriching, but what they don't show is a lasting solution to the sin and suffering question.
So-called Christian films, in contrast, rarely know how to approach sin and suffering in a realistic manner, choosing instead to show saccharine communities filled with saccharine people dealing with saccharine problems. They then offer a solution that is real, but appears trivial and nearly powerless juxtaposed to the problems it solves. It pains me to say it, but Letters to God, a new Christian production in theaters, doesn't deviate from this formula.
Robyn Lively and Jeffrey Johnson do an impressive job in their roles as Maddy, a mom whose son is dying of cancer, and Brady, an alcoholic mailman who befriends the family. But the few notes of authenticity they manage to strike are wrung more from their own acting abilities than from the characters they're playing. And Maddy's son Tyler (Tanner Maguire) is the kind of angelic kid you only see in the movies-he never resents the curious stares and insults of his classmates and doesn't display the least fear of dying.
During my interview with co-director and producer David Nixon, who is best known for producing Fireproof, he shared that the script was written by a father who battled alcohol abuse and severe depression after losing his son to brain cancer. How, I thought, did this father somehow emerge from his place of darkness and loss to write a screenplay? What words of reassurance was he able (or unable) to offer a 9-year-old on the brink of eternity? I still don't know because that's not the story Letters to God tells. Rather than unique, messy, wrenching truth, we get a home-fried narrative wrapped in a reassuring small-town bow.
I couldn't help comparing the way this movie treats the revelation that a main character drove drunk with his son in the car to the way the recent secular hit Crazy Heart treats a similar moment. In Letters it is a throwaway flashback used to inform us in bold-face type "this guy needs God." In Crazy Heart, we experience, with excruciating detail and patience, a man so bleary-eyed in his desire for drink he does not recognize the threat he poses to a young boy he loves. We watch, breath-held and horrified, as the slight ground he managed, with all his effort, to gain on sin slips away with the ease of a whisper. And as Christian viewers we think how many men are just as lost and feel compelled to pray, "Oh Lord, bring them your strength and salvation."
Of course, strong as Crazy Heart is in depicting real life, it is equally weak in depicting real hope. And this is where filmmakers like David Nixon have an incredible opportunity to capture audiences and show them something new. Show them the details, show them the sin, show them the fear in a handful of dust. Then, when they show audiences the solution Christ offers to all the suffering common to mankind, it will look like a miracle worthy of falling on their knees for.