Young adults Hannah (Janessa Floyd), Andrew (Aidan Hart) and Colin (Jeffrey Brabant) are heading into the remote Maryland woods to attend a Bible retreat. Hannah and Andrew are signed-up Christians. Colin is a skeptic, wishing to document their experience, and he holds their one and only camera. We’re in found footage country, folks.
The initiates are greeted at Camp Nazareth by a man refusing to call himself anything but “The Messenger” (Jeremy Harris). He’s an evangelist, permanently grinning, like all the creepy ones are. The Messenger brings the visitors into the camp. It’s not how it looked on the website: Just a bunch of tents, a “cleansing” bucket, and a river for washing.
The Messenger has an evening’s entertainment lined up: A stage play, based on a rather brutal rendition of the Adam and Eve story. What was at once sinister has become dangerous. Colin’s worst fears are coming to life. But is it too late for Hannah and Andrew, who seem enraptured by The Messenger’s promise of the Rapture?
The Faith Community is student-level filmmaking — but hey, Kubrick made his first film in the woods, and that was bobbins, too. Besides, Faith R. Johnson’s debut is not completely without merit, particularly in its mid-section, when Colin gets face-time with the charismatic Messenger and his cousin, the shellshocked Michael (Oliver Palmer). These interview sequences are notable for their long takes and their strong performances. Harris has quality and presence, somehow able to switch from sweet to scary in the space of a single smile. Debuting here (like practically everyone involved in the production), he reminds me of a young Jack Nicholson.
The interviews are well-written, and provide some disturbing context for the main antagonists. Colin was rescued from the grief of losing his parents by finding Jesus, while Michael, fresh from Kuwait, believes he’s an Angel of Death. But these blank polygons still lack texture — this is a film of baddies and goodies, and the final act of the movie is a shouting showdown between tiresome preaching and even more tiresome freaking out.
The Faith Community feels like “The Wicker Man for Dummies.” Crucially, it lacks the seductive quality that makes the best cult-based films so effective. Instead, everything is creepy and menacing from the start; and when the portentous speeches come to the fore they are rambling and unpersuasive. Near the end, one character delivers an embarrassing monologue to the camera, which is pure gobbledegook, and it seems to go on forever.
The idea behind using just one camera isn’t a bad one, if only to keep things unfussy, and to provide a single perspective (like a regular film, in fact). But it also highlights the key drawbacks of the found footage conceit. So, we get all the usual lens focus issues, wobbliness, light glare and bad sound — but on top of that we get endless shots of the forest floor as the single camera is lugged from place to place.
The final nail in the coffin is that the film isn’t scary in the slightest. We get no sense of helplessness because, even when things go really awry, there’s no apparent attempt by the group to escape; therefore, we’ve no idea of the forces they’re up against. When they are somehow captured (a process meekly elided on screen), a static camera lets the resulting scene play out in a laughable medium shot, and all the feeble struggling and screaming and biblical ranting comes off like a Monty Python sketch.
Aside from some good performances from the believers, The Faith Community is not a worthwhile addition to either the found footage or religious cult subgenres. It’s hard to stomach on a purely aesthetic level, it’s repetitive and tame, and its depiction of faith cults is preaching to the converted. One to avoid, then — but perhaps keep tabs on Jeremy Harris.