With a degree of charm and self-parody, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone overcomes a few early clumsy spots to become something of a touchstone in the evolution of faith-based filmmaking. Offering a sometimes-inconsistent but mostly fulfilling blend of humility, romance and yes, resurrection, it easily earns 3 out of 5.
A former child star from a sitcom called Family Life sees the light and becomes a Christian. No, it's not a Kirk Cameron biopic, but a colorful fiction from Vertical Church Films about how a Hollywood actor and a small town church both benefit from working together. When washed-up bad-boy-with-a-good-heart Gavin Stone (Brett Dalton from TV's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) gets in trouble for his latest out-of-control party, his agent and lawyer get him a deal to escape jail if he'll do a couple-hundred hours of community service in his hometown. That's where Gavin is assigned to janitorial work at the local non-denominational church led by Pastor Richardson (D.B. Sweeney). Wouldn't you know it, on Gavin's first day he not only has an awkward women's restroom meet-cute with Kelly (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), but Kelly turns out to be the pastor's daughter and the director of the church's annual Passion Play... for which auditions are today! It doesn't take a trained actor like Gavin to ascertain that the talent on hand isn't up to snuff, and soon he's auditioning for the part of Jesus. He's clearly the best option but there's just one catch: the church will only cast believing Christians since the play is part of their ministry. Will Gavin land the role as the Savior while also working through a strained relationship with his widowed father? And what if Hollywood comes calling again?
Okay, I cringed a bit early, mostly when the movie tried to be funny. But then I caught on that The Resurrection of Gavin Stone has a self-awareness about faith-based productions like the one it's putting on; it plays to our own foibles (inferior acting, nerdy dress, well-meaning platitudes, corny jokes) while also showcasing our upside. You can tell it's trying really, really (too) hard, but the effort mostly pays off. Most of the characters feel realistic to anyone who's been to church, even as much as they're purposefully playing to their own stereotypes of what church people look like, say, wear, etc. To that end, it doesn't really even try to work for secular audiences, even though it's about a non-believing person coming into our midst. It functions more as a primer for "How to love this guy to Jesus even WITH all our crazy, wacky jargon and hangups." So it's fair to think this film has a minor argument with today's hipster, relevant Christians. As in, "Sure, we white suburban churchgoers may be dorks with loads of idiosyncrasies, but we do live for something greater than ourselves and don't seek the spotlight, and THAT can turn people's lives around... if they stay long enough." (Whether this is absolutely true or not, it's certainly an underlying message that could invite criticism about the movie giving itself the ending it wants).
The best performances are turned in by Johnson-Reyes and Dalton, who have extremely easy deliveries with even their most gawky lines (but maybe their romantic chemistry could use a boost?). Sweeney is an acceptable voice of wisdom as Pastor Richardson, and look for wrestling star Shawn Michaels as part of the play's cast and a member of Gavin's Bible study group. As a former hardcore biker and boozer who's found God, Michaels may be playing to real life a bit (see the link below), but he certainly stands out when on screen.
It's an extremely male-heavy ensemble - even the mothers of the two main characters are either dead or unimportant and lone speaking female Kelly is a bit of a pill for a while. While the performances are far from wooden, there are some lines in this script that cut against the grain. For one, it's often difficult when Christians try to do humor - very hit-or-miss. And dramatic lines like, "What kind of a Christian is this selfish?" just seem patently uninformed and judgmental (no believer has ever asked this of me, and I'm selfish all the time). There are also a few plot holes. For instance, it's extremely hard to picture Gavin's father as the type who would have ever let his son get into show business in the first place. How'd the boy get discovered? And get so out from under Dad's thumb? Maybe it was Gavin's mom who handled all that, but as she's been dead several years now, we never really find out. In any case, the subplot between Gavin and his dad (Neil Flynn) comes up lacking in believable communication and resolution (though, five years ago, this film would have ended with Dad responding to an altar call). There's also a noticeable absence of any social media explosion about a famous partying actor's appearance in a church play, even though locally the play sells out and Gavin's picture and name are on the posters around town. That would have been an interesting alley to explore. And who has historically played Jesus in this annual production? Because in some churches, that could be a source of tension when the new guy gets the part. Some may find a few of the choices made by characters to be rather unbelievable ("You're turning down a major network TV show for a church production in flyover country?"), but director Dallas Jenkins has built the story up enough to earn our buy-in without too much difficulty.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Gavin takes a long time to fully understand the character of Jesus, but it's not for Kelly's failure to bluntly explain to him over and over that Jesus was humble and not into fame. Grace is a major theme in both the Passion Play the church produces and in Gavin's story, which all come together at a crucial moment on the cross (the play is done very respectfully). The church benefits from Gavin's theatrical experience and advice, and some members begin to loosen up around him. And of course Gavin will come to see how much meaning these silly Christians find in life, and how much they sacrifice to help others. But there may be some religious elements that hit too close to home for a few folks, such as what brush-off lines work best on which types of annoying church guys, and when Gavin snacks on a handful of communion wafers. And of course we can debate whether Gavin's original lie about being a Christian truly comes home to roost.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including a crucifixion image
- Language/Profanity: None noted.
- Sexuality/Nudity: Several male characters make or have made efforts to date Kelly, some describe the ways in which they were shot down; Kelly's former fiance ran off with another woman. A flirty scene between a man and woman takes place in a ladies' bathroom, but it's all above board. Some male shirtlessness.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: When Gavin is portraying Jesus on the cross, he's covered in stage blood. Some minor peril involving a pulley system to raise an actor into the air.
Drugs/Alcohol: Gavin is a former junkie who is trying to get clean even before his conversion. We learn of wild parties he's thrown (and gotten in trouble for); a TV director tells Gavin he's put 'something special' into the liquor he wants Gavin to drink in a scene they're shooting (he wants the party side of old Gavin to emerge for this character). Gavin's dad drinks beer while watching basketball - he offers one to his son but Gavin declines. One character offers another a "brewsky," but it turns out to be root beer.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: As Christian movies go, Gavin Stone's a family-friendly crowd pleaser. It's hard to imagine anyone in its intended audience of American Christian movie fans (those who go to the multiplex twice a year including to the latest iteration of God's Not Dead) coming out of the theater unhappy. That said, critics of or newcomers to faith-based films might actually find The Resurrection of Gavin Stone a good place to start because of its sincerity and self-awareness. It's even got a very easy-to-sit-through 92-minute runtime.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Cynics (though, I'm prone to a degree of cynicism myself and this movie won me over in the end) and the hipster, relevant Christians referenced earlier. A non-churchgoing audience may have a hard time connecting with this story.
The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, directed by Dallas Jenkins, opened in theaters January 20, 2017; available for home viewing May 2, 2017. It runs 92 minutes and stars Brett Dalton, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Shawn Michaels, Neil Flynn, D.B. Sweeney, Kirk B.R. Woller, Liam Matthews, Tim Frank and Christopher Maleki. Watch the trailer for The Resurrection of Gavin Stone here.
Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor for Crosswalk.com and the co-host of ChristianMovieReviews.com & CrosswalkMovies.com's Video Movie Reviews.
Publication date: January 18, 2017