‘I Can Only Imagine’ preaches a message of forgiveness without being preachy

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Dennis Quaid plays the abusive father of a future music superstar in “I Can Only Imagine.” | LIONSGATE

In 2015, directors Andrew and Jon Erwin made the powerful “Woodlawn,” a based-on-true-events film that argued the power of Christian faith can overcome racism.

In their latest film, “I Can Only Imagine,” also based on true events, the brothers again argue that Christian faith can overcome a seemingly unsolvable problem: the effects of child abuse, in this case, persistent and often brutal physical abuse.

In “Woodlawn” the weapon of righteousness was brotherhood. In “I Can Only Imagine” it’s the power of Christian forgiveness that heals wounds and hearts.

Like “Woodlawn,” being subtle isn’t on the agenda with “I Can Only Imagine.” The Erwins pound home their message, but they do with such skill and accomplished filmmaking the movie never becomes heavy-handed or too preachy.

Take the brothers’ use of “Amazing Grace,” a Christian hymn that can be used to cloying effect if filmmakers aren’t careful. Here, the way the Erwins use the song is like an emotional punch to the stomach. It’s both beautiful and emotionally powerful.

“Imagine” tells the true story of the estranged relationship between Bart Millard, the lead singer of the popular Christian contemporary group MercyMe, and his abusive father.

The young Bart (Brody Rose) practically winces in anticipation of a slap or punch anytime his father (Dennis Quaid) is around. The situation only gets worse when his mother leaves the house.

As Bart (J. Michael Finley, as a teenager and adult) gets older, his relationship with his father expands to both physical and verbal abusive, especially after the elder Millard learns his son is involved with his high school’s theater program.

After one too many beatings, Bart leaves the family home, meets his eventual MercyMe bandmates, and struggles to make it in the tough music business. Through it all, the abuse in his childhood and estrangement with his father hangs over his life.

When Bart learns his father has inoperable cancer, he struggles with the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation. That struggle eventually led Bart to write the song “I Can Only Imagine,” which made the band Christian contemporary music superstars.

In addition to the Erwins’ solid direction, the strength of the movie is the two central performances.

Quaid isn’t afraid to make the elder Millard look both cruel and pathetic. His violence comes with sudden bursts of fierce energy, even including smashing a plate over the teenage Bart’s head. He justifies his brutal treatment by telling himself he’s only trying to toughen up the boy.

Finley is memorable too as Bart. He captures both the pain and anger that the singer must have felt towards his father.

Bart Millard (John Michael Finley) performs with his band MercyMe in “I Can Only Imagine.” | LIONSGATE

Bart Millard (John Michael Finley) performs with his band MercyMe in “I Can Only Imagine.” | LIONSGATE

Adding to the power of his performance: Finley’s strong voice, including one startling sequence when he sings the opening number from “Oklahoma!” (Finley’s credits include work in two Broadway musicals, so his gorgeous voice shouldn’t be a surprise)

Too often faith-based films — say, anything with Kirk Cameron or the terrible “God’s Not Dead” series — tend to preach to the choir or hector their audience.

The Erwins’ films — “I Can Only Imagine” definitely among them — are more inclusive, charitable of spirit and hopeful, all qualities that are always appreciated, be they rooted in Christian faith or otherwise.

Jim Ward, USA TODAY Network


Lionsgate presents a film directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin and written by Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle. Rated PG (for thematic elements including some violence). Running time: 110 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

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