Believe Me (2014)
Editor’s Notes: Believe Me opens in select theaters and is available on Video on Demand on September 26th.
In the past year or so, the “faith based” movie market has experienced something akin to a gold rush. It has been a decade since the arrival of mega-hit The Passion of the Christ, but despite a few modest exceptions, the niche of films aimed specifically at devout (Christian) audiences has not been mined for its true worth. That may have changed this year, with the success of films like Heaven Is For Real and God’s Not Dead, films that cater directly to the desires (and sometimes fears) of American Christians. As a Christian film critic, I find myself doubly dismayed by this trend, as these films usually match their deck-stacking theological shallowness with an aesthetic sensibility that borrows heavily from Thomas Kinkade. It was a breath of fresh air, then, to watch the new film Believe Me, co-written and directed by Will Bakke. Though it stumbles a bit in places, the film has wit, style, and heart enough not only to leave its fellow “Christian” films in the dust, but actually to succeed as a pretty good film, period.
Though it stumbles a bit in places, the film has wit, style, and heart enough not only to leave its fellow “Christian” films in the dust, but actually to succeed as a pretty good film, period.
When college senior Sam (Alex Russell) discovers that he must pay $9,000 to graduate and move on to his next step of law school, he devises a plan for a quick cash grab. Noting the willingness of Christians to donate to charity causes they believe in, minus any oversight, he enlists his fraternity buddies Pierce (Miles Fisher), Tyler (Sinqua Walls), and Baker (Max Adler) in a scheme to raise money for well-building in Africa in order to skim money off the top. Their plan goes to the next level, though, when they attract the attention of Ken (Christopher McDonald), who runs Cross Country, the “second most impactful ministry” in the United States. The newly formed God Squad soon find themselves touring the country, preaching and exhorting and filling their coffers to the brim. Sam soon finds the ruse difficult to maintain, though, between the skulking investigations of dickish worship leader Gabriel (Zachary Knighton), and the heartfelt faith of tour manager Callie (Johanna Braddy).
What makes Believe Me refreshing right off the bat is the satirical edge it brings to its subject. As they get pulled further in, the friends realize they must blend in with the evangelical subculture they find themselves a part of. Their ensuing education gives the film an opportunity to skewer everything from worship postures to the fruitful world of Christian merchandising. Without overtly coming out against the practice, Believe Me also casts a side eye at the practice of American Christians obsessed with Africa as a mission field, ready to stumble in with plenty of zeal but little knowledge. As someone who has spent time in this subculture, I can attest that the jokes and references have a lived in feel, a specificity that makes them genuine yet still recognizable to outsiders.
Underneath its satirical surface, though, the film has some serious topics on its mind, chiefly the need for honesty as a counterbalance to the marketing that seems to dominate much of American Christianity. Sam begins by considering his ruse a harmless deception, but as he realizes more and more the effect his words have on people, he gets disturbed by his phony persona. It may be too late for him to go back, though, because of the faith people have invested in him as a persona. It’s a potent theme in this age of fallen megapastors, and the film does a good job giving weight to the issues.
What makes Believe Me refreshing right off the bat is the satirical edge it brings to its subject.
Unfortunately this heavier turn does make the film feel a bit uneven tonally. The last third is not completely devoid of jokes, but it does get a bit heavy handed as it draws all its threads together. At points near its conclusion, Believe Me feels like it might go off the rails and swerve into full on earnestness (I can easily imagine another “Christian” film that has Sam realize the error of his ways and experience a conversion). Thankfully the film nails the ending, preserving a real sense of doubt about the proceedings. It is honest enough not to force the plot into tidy places. The film also has the unfortunate tendency to dive into music montages as a way of advancing the plot, a lazy trick that makes an already short film feel a little padded.
Still, there’s a lot to like in Believe Me, starting with the cast. All four of the actors playing The God Squad excel in one way or another. The standout, though, is Miles Fisher, who doubles down on his distinct resemblance to Tom Cruise by bringing some of that actor’s douchebaggy 80’s charm to the proceedings. Zachary Knighton also excels, layering just enough dickishness atop the aww shucks obliviousness he perfected on the show Happy Endings. As is typical in smallish budget indie films, there are a few cameos thrown in to bring name recognition and spice things up: Nick Offerman feels largely wasted in a one off appearance, but I enjoyed the sight of Christian rapper LeCrae hamming it up as a doctor in an on-screen snippet from a “Christian” film.
The good natured breeziness the cast brings to the material helps glide over most of the film’s shortcomings and makes Believe Me a lot of fun to watch. I cannot say for sure, but I suspect the film will appeal to non-Christians in its skewering of many of the obnoxious tropes of evangelicalism while still presenting its characters as sincere and grounded. On the whole, though, Believe Me fills a need in the faith based film market by applying some much needed self-criticism and asking some tough questions for people to wrestle with. There’s no guarantee that Believe Me will catch the attention of God’s Not Dead devotees, but it provides at least a glimmer of hope for the future of “Christian” film. Praise the Lord, indeed.
Believe Me rises above some structural problems to present a well-acted, funny satire of American Christianity.