Though Dolphin Tale earned the highest receipts, the big box office story the weekend of Oct. 1 was the movie that came in fourth. With a miniscule budget (by Hollywood standards) of only $1 million, a Christian-themed story of five men struggling to live up to the high calling of fatherhood earned $9 million in its opening weekend. This feat is especially impressive given that it screened on less than half the number of theaters as its mainstream competitors. Looking solely at per-theater averages, Courageous was far and away the weekend's winner.
The latest production from Sherwood Baptist Church's movie ministry (best known for Facing the Giants and Fireproof), Courageous (rated PG-13 for violence and drug content) packs an undeniable emotional punch. In addressing arguably the greatest social ill America faces-absentee fathers-writer/director/actor/producer Alex Kendrick and screenwriter/producer Stephen Kendrick show that Christian movies have the potential to compete in the same arena as the big boys. Not only have they achieved the kind of laugh-out-loud humor usually foreign to the genre, their opening action sequence in which a father chases down his would-be carjacker is as tense and riveting as any from the likes of James Cameron or Michael Bay.
Most of the characters are well-written and nuanced. Rather than stock bad guys and heroes, we have conflicted men with complicated backgrounds. The movie tackles issues of divorce, complacency, and abandonment with such a relatable tone, by the time it issues a clarion call to fathers to stand against a cultural tide that would make them irrelevant, it will be a rare hard-hearted man who doesn't feel inspired to answer.
Now, with so much positive to note about the film, I would like to go out on a limb and offer a suggestion to the Kendrick brothers. Perhaps it's time to go corporate and dive into the high-dollar end of the pool. Not that they should go bigger just for bigger's sake-but go bigger for excellence's sake. They have grown with each movie, and Courageous proves they are ready for the challenges that come with pricier productions.
Volunteer actors are a wonderful thing and those who have served in Sherwood's productions perform astonishingly well-for amateurs. But as last year's winner of France's Palm d'Or, Of Gods and Men, demonstrates, the capacity of experienced actors-to borrow a writer's cliché-to show without telling is invaluable. They understand the art of subtlety and when a fleeting expression of pain will reveal more than all-out sobbing. They trust their audiences to respond without the promptings of enormous indicating gestures, something inexperienced actors like those in Courageous rarely do.
The film's closing credits uncover a similar cause for its other weaknesses-the Kendricks are doing half the jobs themselves. It's a shame given that the presence of editors and producers with years of practice in the Hollywood trenches might have elevated Courageous from "good if deeply flawed" to just plain good.
For example, had the movie dropped at least one of the five fathers' storylines to dig deeper into the remaining characters' lives, the evangelizing scenes that come later would have felt less calculated and unearned. And a trained editing eye might have spotted that piling high point upon high point wasn't lifting the story up, it was dragging it down. Courageous would have benefitted from leaving at least three of its emotional climaxes on the cutting-room floor.
Christian audiences-starved for anything that speaks to them on a spiritual level-will continue to support Sherwood Baptist films for those elements that work while charitably overlooking those that don't. But what a gift it would be to those same audiences, as well as to viewers who aren't as likely to forgive shortcomings for the sake of message, for the Kendricks to build on their God-given talents and make a movie of such quality it requires no caveats. It won't come as cheap or as easy, but it will be worth it.
Listen to Megan Basham discuss the film Courageous from the Oct. 8 edition of the radio program The World and Everything in It.