Full disclaimer: This is a religious film…
Thank God (no pun intended) for movies based on true stories. “I Can Only Imagine” certainly has a story to tell, and it definitely should tell it. Unfortunately, Christian films are often plagued by negative stigmas because they treat their subjects delicately, and “I Can Only Imagine” falls into that category too easily at times.
“I Can Only Imagine” is a 2001 single released by the Christian rock group, MercyMe, and is still the most successful single in terms of sales and publicity from a Christian group. It was the first Christian song to ever be certified Platinum by the RIAA, and held impressive numbers on both the mainstream and faith-based music charts for many consecutive weeks. This film narrates the story of its creator: Bart Millard, played by J. Michael Finley, whom I must mention is fantastic for his first feature role. Casting directors should keep Finley’s name in mind after seeing his work here.
Abandoned by his estranged mother and raised by his physically abusive father, Bart discovers his talent for singing and songwriting in high school, much to his father’s dismay. He converts to Christianity (also to the chagrin of his father), and graduates high school to pursue a career in playing his music on the road. Bart has a knack for show business, and is noticed by manager and producer Scott Brickell (Trace Adkins in a role tailored just for him). Brickell encourages Bart to write about all of his pain, sorrows, life experiences, and joys – advice that is really at the heart of this film. As soon as Bart received the advice to channel his inner turmoil into creative expression, I was sold on this movie’s message. This was no longer a typical preachy Christian movie that we’ve come to dread; it has a common but quintessential message for all aspiring artists. “I Can Only Imagine” therefore walks the faith-based movie tightrope very well…
…which brings me to my problems with this movie. I’m happy that they don’t stem from the Christian status (such as the abysmal God’s Not Dead), but instead that they are thematic and technical flaws. Bad editing can hurt any great project. Let’s start with the message of forgiveness: there’s an interesting moral quandary to navigate, which is something you probably want in a Christian movie, but we traverse through it without exactly finding a conclusive end. It follows: Bart’s success in Christian rock is due to his traumatic childhood, yet there are so many instances where we wish he could’ve had a loving family. But then, the issue of forgiveness for his father (Dennis Quaid) comes into play, and obviously some wrongdoing is needed before mercy is initiated. Yet, it’s a lot of wrongdoing. This mental back-and-forth is perhaps what the film wants us to struggle with, but its strength for a particular stance (the one where forgiveness is championed) isn’t entirely there. And why?
Because the movie holds back on a technical level. According to the film, Bart’s father beat his son senseless regularly. But we never experience the full scope of that kind of pain. I’m not arguing that “I Can Only Imagine” needs to be an R-rated drama of horrific abuse scenes, but the intensity never sinks in for a majority of the film; it’s merely suggested, and sometimes much too late for us as an engaged audience.
Finally, there is no concern whatsoever about Bart’s mother (Tanya Clarke) after she shamefully abandons her son, yet a postscript introduces her again as “Bart’s biggest fan.” Though Bart’s story deserves the focus, it’s a glaring error and example of neglect on the part of the filmmakers to ignore his mother. In some ways, she can be interpreted as the “worst” of two awful parents, but we’re not allowed the space to consider it.
Despite these issues, the music saves “I Can Only Imagine.” The film rightfully hinges on its music. Even if Christian rock isn’t your cup of tea (it’s not mine), this movie is its place to be appreciated as an art form that means so much to so many people. If anything, the movie needed more music, yet the wait to finally hear the titular track is a brilliant pacing device. We’re made to wait for it so we can finally understand its deep, emotional impact.