Released: 12th March
Seen: 16th March
About 2 years ago I talked about a film called God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in the Darkness, a biblical sermon disguised as a film made by people who don’t know how films work. In that review, I made the point that a film is going to need more than just religion to work for me. Sure, religion can be an element, but if the entire thing is basically a sermon then I’m not going to be kind to it no matter what the religion is. Enter I Still Believe, a biopic (of sorts) about a contemporary Christian musician named Jeremy Camp and how he met his first wife while making his rise to fame. In theory, this film does what I’m talking about. Faith is a huge factor in the story but there is a story outside of the faith. In theory, I’m OK with this. In practice, it’s a hard pass from me.
The story of Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) is one that starts in a very similar way to a lot of these kinds of movies with a young Jeremy heading to college and seeing a concert by a band he likes. He talks to the lead singer, Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons) for hints about how to be a better musician which eventually leads to Jeremy playing a song at one of Jean-Luc’s concerts. It’s through this performance that Jeremy meets Melissa (Britt Robertson) and falls head over heels for her. From there, the bulk of their love story consists of a strange argument with Jean-Luc and eventually Melissa’s tragic battle with ovarian cancer. Throughout these hardships, the couples love is tested and their faith is… well, unwavering, having them reach a crisis of faith would’ve been interesting and we can’t have that.
Let’s get this out of the way now, this is based on what really happened to Jeremy Camp and his first wife and I do not in any way mean to disparage them as people. I do not know them as people, I know them as characters that were written by three unrelated people and directed by two other unrelated people. Jeremy’s story of love and loss is a tragic one… when HE tells it. He’s not the one telling it here, a team of writers are telling it and they do not do it justice in any way. Instead of focusing on the people, they focussed on the faith and forgot that we’re doing a movie and not a sermon about how awesome Jesus is. This is a story about a woman dying of cancer and still marrying the man she loves while he tries to become a singer. It’s A Star Is Born Again, how is this so hard?
One of the big problems with the movie is that it fast forwards through the actually interesting parts. Most of the actual courtship between Jeremy and Melissa is relegated to nothing more than a simple montage and then a different montage covers most of Melissa’s cancer treatment. The two times we could get to know these people, we’re denied it because instead, we need to keep cutting back to a shot of K.J. Apa trying his best to look confident on a stage while he plays 4 separate songs that all sound the same. Seriously, I’m convinced every song that’s played on screen is the same song with different words. I know a lot of pop music sounds the same, but this is borderline identical and considering Jeremy Camp has a long list of songs you could’ve picked some that sounded a little different (I assume he has some songs that sound different, I’m not going to go listen to his entire catalogue because this kind of music does less than nothing for me). Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by Rocketman, but you don’t need to rely on time-period appropriate song choices, you could just pick anything that helps tell the story.
The story itself just doesn’t work in how it’s being told. It’s so toothless and saccharine that when we have these big moments like, just an example out of nowhere, Melissa coughing up blood it ends up not working because there’s no time for the impact of the actual intense moments to hit home. They spend so much time on their faith that we lose track of the human story, and sometimes the faith makes it impossible for the audience to engage in this genuinely emotional story. It is, sincerely, an emotional heartfelt story about a young couple who fall in love and are torn apart by death. Shakespeare literally became an icon telling that exact story… but we don’t get that emotional story. Instead, we get either “I feel better, it’s a miracle” or “I’m still dying, that’s God’s plan”.
Again, I do not know if the real Melissa said that her cancer was part of God’s plan. I don’t know, some people do genuinely say that and if they need to say that then fine… I personally can’t abide that kind of thing. I especially can’t abide it when no one questions it, they still fight the illness using chemotherapy and then thank God when suddenly the cancer seems to have gone… this was the point when it became clear they were not talking about the characters anymore. This movie stopped being about Jeremy and Melissa at that point and became about two generic believers who will just praise God no matter what and have no personalities or character traits outside of loving God. That’s a constant problem in this kind of movie, they portray believers as having no other facets outside of their belief in god. They stop being human at that point and it’s hard to care about them, even when going through tragedy. It’s also hard to care because they’re badly written.
So, earlier in this review, I mentioned Jean-Luc, leader of a band that Jeremy likes. Well, he has another purpose in the story… attempting to be part of a love triangle. For the first half of this movie, Melissa and Jeremy don’t openly admit they’re dating and it’s stated it’s because Melissa didn’t want to hurt Jean-Luc. Jean-Luc and Melissa aren’t actually dating, they’re just friends but it’s played like they both know Jean-Luc is in love with Melissa. It’s there so that we can have that moment of conflict when Jean-Luc finds out and… that’s it, this big plotline is there for a moment of conflict that means nothing in the long run. Hell, it meant nothing when it happened because the second you see Jean-Luc’s reaction the immediate reaction is “Why the hell do you care? You’re not involved in this”. It turns him into a creepy stalker instead of the third wheel they were trying to make him into. The writers know that good stories have conflict, but they aren’t allowed to make the conflict into something interesting (like a loss of faith, for example) so they went the romantic classic “You cheated on me” scenario but couldn’t go all the way with it, creating this awkward character dynamic that never works.
Speaking of never works, let’s talk about doubt. The way to tell this kind of story properly would be to have the things that Melissa goes through test Jeremy’s faith, losing her means that he may as well not believe anymore. This is how a good storyteller might spin this but not only do we not have one of those, we’re dealing with a real person’s story AND we’re here to preach the gospel above anything else so any actual moments of doubt have to be brought up once in one conversation with Jeremy’s father near the end, it lasts maybe 30 seconds and never impacts the plot. They pay lip service to the idea but dismiss it, denying the character an emotional breakthrough which sucks because K.J. Apa is actually pretty good in this film and shows off a lot of talent, he would’ve destroyed with a scene of actually getting angry at God for taking his soulmate away… but we aren’t here to tell a story, we’re here to preach.
What I Still Believe needed to do was just be a documentary about Jeremy. The film ends with a brief bit of footage with the real Jeremy Camp and when he talks there’s genuine emotion there. Don’t bother telling me the story through the lens of this attempted romantic drama, just have Jeremy tell Melissa’s story with all the raw details you can only get from first-hand knowledge. That’s what this story needed for it to work, but it got ground through the Christian Film machine and came out as an edgeless pointless ball of boredom with good performers trying to tell a real story that’s been badly translated. I tried to believe, but sadly I just can’t.