It's never a good sign when a movie includes a spontaneous burst of spectator applause.
You know the scene; you've seen it before in everything from romantic comedies to legal dramas to sports biopics. A main character, at a point of crisis, gives an impromptu speech about his love for the girl or his love for the law or his love for the game and a crowd of otherwise disinterested or possibly hostile onlookers is suddenly caught up in his passion and can't resist demonstrating their approval with a round of furious clapping.
Good screenwriters, recognizing them for the obvious audience-manipulators they are, avoid these scenes. Last Ounce of Courage features three of them.
It's not that the Christian-produced film, rated PG and releasing to 1,200 theaters nationwide on Sept. 14, doesn't have a valid point to make. People of various religious stripes feel overwhelmed and frustrated by secularist efforts to scrub the public sphere of all signs of faith. But it fails to put that point into the mouths of three-dimensional characters who arrive at their moments of epiphany in any way that feels authentic.
To wit, Bob Revere (Marshall Teague), the small-town mayor who's on a crusade to restore biblical symbolism to Christmas, is supposedly responding to a challenge from his teenage grandson, Christian (Hunter Gomez). The boy and his mother moved away after his father, Bob's son, died in combat, and they haven't seen each other for 14 years. Yet hardly any time is devoted to building a believable relationship between grandfather and grandson. We are to take it on faith that at some point, off screen, a deep bond has developed between them.
The same goes for Christian's mother, Kari (Nikki Novak). She's spent the time since her husband's death in Los Angeles, getting involved, she says, in things she shouldn't have. What these things are and why she decided to disentangle herself from them is a mystery. All we know is she's repentant.
Even the smaller characters make dramatic turns of opinion without much justification. A lawsuit-phobic principal who begins by banning the Bible from his school ends by cheering as Bob hoists a cross onto a public building. Bob's wayward newscaster daughter suddenly decides she wants to be a part of the family again.
All of this, it seems, is sparked by Bob's inspirational speeches and meant to induce the warm-fuzzy feelings of patriotism and reconciliation. But when we aren't given the arc of a person's emotional journey, there's little reason to care when they've reached the end of it. Unfortunately, the characters who aren't given stark attitudinal shifts get even shallower treatment.
Christians have justifiably complained over the years about how Hollywood scripts demonize them. Too often they have us parroting rote, negative dialogue of what they think an uptight Christian would say without bothering to investigate our beliefs or to represent them accurately. So while I understand the temptation to reverse this treatment, I wouldn't call it Christ-like.
Though some of the language here mirrors what we often hear from the ACLU and public-school officials, Last Ounce of Courage simplifies and dumbs down their arguments to such a degree that they become ugly stereotypes rather than real people. That Bob and his supporters achieve a rhetorical victory over such meager reasoning isn't much of an accomplishment, and doesn't provide much entertainment either.