Most Christian faith-based films mean well and have the best of intentions in terms of the inspiration it preaches to its targeted audiences. However, filmmaking brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin (“I Can Only Imagine”) go so much further, delivering with odd conviction, a saccharine-coated, religious-themed love story that taps more sap than that found in a Vermont sugar maple tree. The sibling co-directors (with Jon Erwin serving as co-writer with Jon Gunn) behind the mawkish Christian rock music biopic I Still Believe wallow in its thick evangelical atmosphere complete with spiritual pop rock and an amiable messaging about hope and affections of the heart. Although it aims to illustrate savory vibes of an uplifting higher power melodrama, from its pulpit the Erwin brothers simply muster up a sluggish Christian romancer that does not have a prayer.
There is something that can be said for feel-good cinema especially one that finds comfort in faith, healing, and belief — something so strangely foreign in today’s cynical cinematic landscape. Even so, the Erwins conduct their soul-searching methods with a breezy approach that never adequately explores the realm of a blooming romance that has all the spark of an unwatered houseplant. What starts out as an earnest exploration of love and spirituality turns into a hammy slice of lovey-dovey clichés between a bland, albeit attractive, starry-eyed couple.
In any event, I Still Believe is based upon the true exploits of Christian musician Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa, “A Dog’s Purpose”). While juggling his duties as a Bible college student on the West Coast, the Indiana-bred singer is instantly smitten when he spots the desirable Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson, “Tomorrowland”) in the audience at a musical event. He pursues, she resists, but it doesn’t take for her to give in and accept the ever growing attraction. Of course, no romantic bond is considered flawless as the treacly tandem will soon discover.
Naturally, the obligatory brush with adversity sets in for the devoted sweethearts. Conveniently, their relationship is stalled based upon a couple of major factors. First, Jeremy and Melissa must contend with a third link to their intimate union — friend and singer Jean-Luc Lajoie (Nathan Parsons, “Teeth”). For Jeremy, besides being a friend, Jean-Luc is a musical mentor of sorts for the Christian performer. For Melissa, besides friendship, Jean-Luc harbors feelings for the wholesome beauty.
Jean-Luc is not the only roadblock to compromise the committed lovebirds. It is soon revealed that poor Melissa is diagnosed with cancer. Now the couple must demonstrate their genuine admiration for each other during the difficult times that jeopardizes Melissa’s life. How will they cope with this devastating reality of illness? Will the blessed graces of Christian faith intervene and see Melissa and Jeremy through the hardship and heartaches?
Unfortunately, I Still Believe feels altogether sketchy in its depiction of loving spiritual devotion. The leads, Apa and Robertson, are appealing enough to attract youngsters to revel in their polished aura onscreen, but the hackneyed heartstrings manipulated in this unbearable weeper may prove to be too heavy-handed. Plus, the Erwin bothers seem to forgo the musical foundation of Jeremy Camp by never really delving into the creative force of the singer’s insights or ingenuity for his musical artistry. The Christian music featured feels more of an afterthought in comparison to the trite bonding between Apa’s hopeful Jeremy and Robertson’s sickly, but sweet, Melissa. Thrown into the mopey mix with head-scratching effect are Gary Sinise (“CSI: NY” TV series) and country singer-actress Shania Twain as Jeremy’s parents Tom and Teri Camp, and Melissa Roxburgh (“Star Trek Beyond”) as Melissa’s protective sister. Overall, the grating dramatics and syrupy platitudes render I Still Believe as woefully slanted as the local church steeple.