Young Adult

REVIEW: I Still Believe

Lionsgate
Rated: PG
Run Time: 115 minutes
Directors: Andrew & Jon Erwin

For some filmgoers, the mere mention of “faith-based films” makes them cringe; this, unfortunately, is not without due cause. While many solid films exist in the market, there are far too many demonize “non-believers,” while billing those with faith as almost mythic-like humans ready to part the seas and challenge the evils of the world.

With this history in mind, I try to be a little forgiving of the genre when a flawed but well-meaning film like I Still Believe comes to theaters. It’s not a game-changer or a great film, but it’s sweet, with a competent cast and inspiring message. That’s enough to get a recommendation from me. I Still Believe is directed by the Erwin Brothers who did the 2018 film, I Can Only Imagine (which is one of the best of the genre in recent years). Here, we follow the story of another Christian musician, Jeremy Camp (played by KJ Apa), and the struggles he faces as his first wife Melissa (played by Britt Robertson) battles with cancer.

For most of the movie, things play out reminiscent of a “Nicholas Sparks-ian” weepy-romance: we have our attractive young people who meet in sandy locations with dewy sunlight. At first, the romance is threatened by another suitor but eventually they declare their love just in time for our female character to get in an accident or become terminally ill. This is exactly how things play out here except, of course, this is a true story: Camp and his wife really did fall in love, they really did have a moment of healing, and she really did face-off with cancer. This battle that led him to write the popular title-song I Still Believe (the song and the music as a whole are not as good as I Can Only Imagine, which saps some of the energy from certain sequences). Obviously a true story is going to be more impactful than fiction (and we have to be more forgiving of story tropes) but it is nevertheless still predictable.

Britt Robertson and KJ Apa in a scene of I Still Believe | Lionsgate

The key to making a film like this effective is getting the right casting and portraying enough moments of earned emotion—I Still Believe passes both of these tests. It is not one of the best faith-based films of recent memory, but it is solid and inspiring enough to be worth a watch. While Robertson is getting too old for these types of teen roles, she and Apa have nice chemistry together which goes a long way. The script is also smart, giving them more than just anguish and misery to face together; we get to see them staring at stars in a planetarium, singing tunes by the ocean, and spending time with family together. This helps bond us as viewers to the couple especially as things get harder.

Unfortunately, the first act of I Still Believe has an extended back and forth love triangle, which I did not care for. It was so obvious who was going to get together that the melodrama of “will she/won’t she” was not interesting in the least. That said, once the cancer plot goes into full gear the film mostly earns its emotion. I particularly loved a scene with Gary Sinese (playing Camp’s father) where he talks about the disappointments in his life but how each one of them has brought him closer to God. I saw I Still Believe about 10 days ago and that message, along with his performance, has really stayed with me and made a positive impression.

KJ Apa performs a song in a scene of I Still Believe | Lionsgate

Thankfully there are enough strong moments in I Still Believe to make it worthy of a recommendation, especially for its target demographic of religious evangelicals. There were times I got a little sleepy (both because I was sick and the pacing sagged), and it is not reinventing the wheel; but in the end, it is a sincere and sweet story of faith and love, and sometimes that’s enough.

Recommendation: MAYBE A MATINEE

REVIEW: All the Bright Places

NETFLIX
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 108 minutes
Director: Brett Haley

This is an exhausting review. From now on, I feel I can only review comedies. This is no happy-go-lucky review, but I hope you read through and leave your thoughts below, because if I’m going to talk about this, I don’t want to talk about it alone.

All the Bright Places is a Netflix adaptation of the young adult (YA) novel of the same name by Jennifer Niven. It follows Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) and Violet Markey (Elle Fanning)—a pair of Indiana teens who fall in love while completing a geography project (partner projects seem to have a 99% chance of creating romantic relationships in YA novels, but only a 1% chance in real life).  Violet is struggling with the death of her sister, and while Finch seems incredibly motivated to help her get out of her dark place, his own struggle is admitting that he needs bright places just as much as she does. The movie’s trailer would have you believe that you’re about to see a typical teen drama in the same vein as The Fault in our Stars. I feel like that’s pretty misleading considering the entire movie—from start to finish—is about suicide.

That isn’t a spoiler, because when you press “play” and the Netflix logo appears on your screen, the TV-MA icon appears in the top left corner with the words, “suicide, language.” Just as Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars films have a warning for those with photosensitive epilepsy, shouldn’t we also have warnings for those who might be triggered by portrayals of suicide and self-harm? I want to acknowledge that the effort made by Netflix to be responsible in these portrayals is the best part of the movie. They show students getting help by talking to parents, counselors, and support groups, while most films seem to be about how ineffective those resources are. They are careful not to place blame on the victims of suicide or the people who lose them. At the end of the movie there is a link to a site Netflix constructed with resources for anyone looking for help for themselves or for a loved one. They have come a long way since 13 Reasons Why, and I’m grateful for that.

Elle Fanning and Justice Smith in a scene of All the Bright Places | NETFLIX

As the title suggests, there are bright places and moments throughout the film. I loved the “your turn” rock. For fear of spoiling too much of the story, I’ll suffice to say that it provides something that most movies portraying suicide do not: a sense that we have a responsibility to lift each other up, but we also have a responsibility to help ourselves; or at least, a personal responsibility to accept help when it’s offered. Moreover, that responsibility isn’t accompanied by blame or guilt; it’s made clear that everyone is trying their hardest and catharsis is possible. The leads are spot-on—both Elle Fanning’s laughter and tears are so genuine that they broke my heart. And if there were an Olympics for portraying emotions with facial expressions then Justice Smith would have Michael Phelps-level success. Unfortunately, their romantic relationship was the least convincing part of the film for me. It was supposed to be the center of the story, but its cutesy nature felt flimsy beside the tragic and painful subject matter. 

Ultimately, as a story, the movie falls flat for me. That’s so hard for me to admit; I wanted to see it succeed because of the obvious care and meticulous work that went into creating it. But I think I wanted something else from this film—I wanted the heart-breaking romance of A Star is Born, or the humorous honesty of Silver Linings Playbook, or the perspective-changing story of A Beautiful Mind, or, if all expectation could be blown out of the water, I wished I could have had something like the Anne Hathaway episode from Amazon’s Modern Love. I would recommend all of those 100 times, but not this one. I want to know how films can be better about addressing mental illnesses and suicidal feelings, so please comment below with movies you feel handle these heavy topics well, in addition to being powerful films.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You

NETFLIX
Rated: TV-14
Run Time: 101 minutes
Director: Michael Fimognari

“I promise I am not going to break your heart.” To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You delivers on that promise and does not disappoint. There are so many aspects of the first hit movie, which debuted on NETFLIX in 2018, that I’ll never forget. Peter Kavinsky’s (played by Noah Centineo) smile and ruggedly handsome good looks that will give you so many young Mark Ruffalo vibes. Lara Jean’s (played by Lana Condor) adorable dimples, relatable inner monologue, and amazing fashion sense. Younger sister, Kitty (played by Anna Carthart) with her quick-witted remarks, annoying little sister behavior, and endearing motivations. These are all aspects in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before that really made the movie stand out, and you’ll love seeing more of the same in this fun and enjoyable sequel. 

Besides the occasional cheesy moment, out-of-character break of the 4th wall, and some rushed pacing, I feel this sequel did a great job of continuing the story. It further develops the characters–showing how teenager’s poor decision-making skills can spiral into some unwanted consequences. The new characters that were introduced also helped support the main plot’s development. From John Ambrose (played by Jordan Fisher), another recipient of one of Lara Jean’s love letters, to Stormy (played by Holland Taylor), an elderly woman living at the Belleview Retirement Home where Lara Jean volunteers. They both helped move the story of this sequel along, and pushed Lara Jean to learn and grow. 

Like a good majority of sequels, this one does not beat out the first. It’s missing some of the iconic and symbolic imagery that director Susan Johnson brought to the first one, which I felt was dang near perfect. Essentially, if a romantic comedy can leave me wanting to see more of the love story, I call it a success. In all, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You had me rooting for the characters, holding my cheeks in embarrassment, bopping along to the catchy soundtrack, and falling more in love with Noah Centineo’s and Lana Condor’s acting.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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