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A Believable Critique
Believe Me takes on the faith based subculture with slick satire and a surprising amount of heart.

Believe Me is the latest from Riot Studios, a group which has in the past focused on documentaries highlighting some of the ways the Christian subculture interacts with the rest of the world (past works include Beware of Christians and One Nation Under God). Although they are believers, it's clear that their approach to media is a little unconventional.

Some of the core aspects of their approach to filmmaking is stated neatly on Riot Studios' official website: "Story Before Message. Questions Before Answers." These sentences prove to be a neat summation of part of what makes new feature film Believe Me work.

The movie follows the path of college seniors Sam (Alex Russell), Baker (Max Adler), Tyler (Sinqua Walls) and Pierce (Miles Fisher) who find themselves in a financial bind upon graduation. The solution is an idea born from visiting a church service and observing a collection for a mission trip: the frat house team decides to create a fake non-profit, raise funds and pocket the profits for themselves.

This plan escalates when Ken (Christopher McDonald), the director of a nationwide music and ministry tour with events bearing similarities to Acquire the Fire or Passion, offers to give them the coveted spot of charity partner for the summer's tour. Thus the four scammers are swept into the heart of Christian subculture, forgery and the complicated moral dilemmas posed by both.

The shenanigans spotlighted by the narrative are grounded by the presence of Callie (Johanna Braddy), a tour manager with an honest if imperfect faith and a genuine passion for the purported cause of the guys' charity (which claims to build wells in Africa, similar to real life charity blood:water mission). It is partly her influence which starts giving the cons second thoughts-- which leads to some of the core conflicts of the movie.

Believe Me seems to split pretty evenly into two halves. The first half is sharp and satirical, poking fun at a subculture that can often tend towards the contrived or absurd. Though some of the gags were by no means new (much of it may ring familiar for readers of Stuff Christians Like or Jesus Needs New PR), they were certainly carried out with snappy dialog and slick editing, making for an entertaining watch. The movie successfully puts its finger on foibles anyone who has spent significant time in evangelical Christian circles has likely noticed but been unable to pin down or voice.

One such piece of satire is essentially the entire character of worship leader Gabe (Zachary Knighton). The somewhat controlling, moody, self-centered and self-assured musician is suspicious of the college gang from the outset. In addition to providing a necessary plot function, Gabe also provides moments to explore some of the conflict between living true faith and having rock star status, as well as providing a vehicle for jabs at over-simplified worship song lyrics and the ever-popular guilt trip prayer (prayed for Sam when Gabe begins to fear he might have his sights set on Callie).

The second half of the film sees a dramatic shift in tone and focus. The tension reaches a breaking point as multiple arguments ultimately leading to Gabe finding out their scheme, and some of the messier aspects of navigating Christianity are played out on screen with compelling realism. Tour leader Ken tries to cover up the fraud, insisting that it would be too damaging to the ministry's work if it got out (and appropriating the funds for the use of his own ministry-- an exposition of the subtlety of hypocrisy).

Callie is devastated, and her struggle to actually be honest about her hurt rather than just throwing out a half-hearted "I forgive you" hits home. Meanwhile, the four college kids, most notably Sam (who has served as tour preacher), are forced to confront what they actually believe and how to state that honestly-- even when the answer is "I don't know."

As it treads in sensitive territory, Believe Me doesn't set out to offer answers. Instead, it aims to ask some vital questions: why do you believe what you believe? What is smoke-and-mirror style emotional manipulation, and what is true faith? What is the cost of honesty, and are you willing to pay that price?

These are not easy questions, and for many viewers they may prove uncomfortably unresolved by the time the credits roll; you should enter this film prepared for a lack of absolute resolution. But this is part of where the film truly shines. There is no tidy gospel presentation. There is no "come to Jesus" moment (in fact the film almost self-referentially says as much). Part of what makes this movie ring true where so many others haven't is that it does not try to resolve in a neat 10 minute climax questions many of us spend our whole life trying to find some closure to.

It is to the filmmakers' credit that all of the characters are portrayed with an equal degree of transparency, whether they identify as Christians or not. Obviously, the definitely non-religiously inclined college kids come across as flawed-- but so do the Christian leadership figures, whether it be Ken's hypocrisy and fear or Gabe's (admittedly pretty entertaining) arrogance. The result is that, for me personally, this is a rare portrayal of faith in a film that did not feel cheapened to the point of unreality.

As far as production value goes, the primary weakness in an overall strong piece is the pacing. The way the movie goes from snappy satire to soul-searching drama in what feels like moments requires some mental stretching for the audience, momentarily jarring the flow of the story. Although the movie shines in both areas, there are minor narrative hiccups transitioning between the two. However, overall the filmmaking is clean, and the story survives its few stumbles.

Ideologically, the filmmakers are to be lauded for the gutsy decision to risk alienating their primary potential target audience by choosing to critique rather than simply meekly endorse Christian subculture and mainstream Western doctrine. This will definitely win the film its fair share of enemies, and already social media detractors have clamored that the film makes Christians look bad and thus will potentially turn seekers and skeptics away. However, the film itself answers that when Callie tells Sam "if anyone's faith is in you, they should walk away from it."

There are moments when the satire feels like it becomes just a little careless, like it is straying into critique for the sake of critique rather than critique for the sake of uncovering truth. This is a common pitfall for this kind of project, and although as a whole they actually struggle with that less than might be expected, there were a few moments that felt uncomfortably harsh. That being said, this is the first major Christian movie to attempt this kind of cinematic conversation about the flaws of contemporary faith's habits, which makes it a voice still well worth considering.

Overall, this is a well-written, well-acted, well-executed glimpse into some of the complexities of living genuinely, especially where faith is involved. Potential audiences should not go into this expecting the empowering, affirming experience offered by normal faith based film fare. Believe Me should be approached with the understanding that it might make you uncomfortable. Disrupting comfortable norms is part of its goal. But the movie's purpose in doing so is to ultimately deconstruct the contrived and meaningless in order to encourage audiences to ask the questions that really do matter-- and in this above all else, Believe Me is successful.

Associate Editor Mary Nikkel’s love for writing, photography, videography and rock and roll have all been bound together by her love for Jesus, leading to her role with NRT. Her favorite things include theology and Greek language studies, her math grad student husband, obscure Nashville coffee shops, all things related to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and pushing the boundaries enacted by societal norms.

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