Review of OVERCOMER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
Christian sports drama
2019, 119 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

Overcomer is the latest inspirational Christian film from brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, with Alex serving once again as director and also starring. Like the others before it—Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011), and War Room (2015)—there’s frequent mention of God and prayer. Unlike the others, there are quite a few come-to-Jesus moments rather than a single pivotal one. That’s not a criticism, mind you. It’s a fact. If you’re put off by preachy films (“You were created to know and worship Him”), then you won’t want to buy or stream this one.

But it’s also a fact that the Kendrick brothers keep improving. The writing is a little more polished, the camerawork has grown stronger, and there are more sophisticated shots—some, in this film, using drones. The overall production values are far superior as well, the result of a $5 million budget (compared to the $20,000 budget the Kendricks had to work with for their first film). While the brothers’ early films mostly cast members of their Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia (where Kendrick was an associate pastor), they’ve graduated to using more professional actors . . . and that also help to elevate the overall quality. This time there’s also a killer soundtrack, with the highlight a song (“You Say”) by Grammy- and American Music Awards-winner Lauren Daigle.

What further elevates this film is a more savvy sense of potential audiences. Some of the earlier Kendrick brothers’ films felt like simple parables that followed the same facile conversion/resolution that readers encounter in the Bible—a Saul-to-Paul transformation that begins close to rock bottom and pivots to salvation after the subject finds Jesus. Overcomer is a little more sophisticated than that, insomuch as it juggles a number of conversions or reconversions of people who are at different stages of life and belief. As preachy films go, this one has more plotting and interest.

Kendrick, a marginally passable actor, plays John Harrison, a history teacher and basketball coach at Brookshire Christian School who prioritizes basketball above all else in his life. Shari Rigby plays Amy, his wife who thinks he should be more involved with their sons’ lives apart from basketball—though not enough, apparently, for the filmmakers to make the boys more than window dressing. Priscilla Shirer, meanwhile, plays Principal Brooks, who insists that John take over coaching the Cross-Country Team after their whole town downsizes following a massive plant lay-off and his basketball team is decimated. What follows is as predictable as Hoosiers and almost as rousing.

John’s focus soon shifts to Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson), an orphan raised by her grandmother. Hannah is the only student to show up for Cross-Country try-outs. Asthma and all, she’s his entire team. It’s a little troublesome that the Kendricks felt that they had to make this African American girl a thief, especially when her thievery isn’t really integral to the plot. She squirrels away her stolen items rather than using them, but the reason for doing so is never revealed—just as we never know why John remarks that he put his watch down and now it’s gone, but never looks for it or questions where it went until she presents it to him later (you knew it would happen). It’s also unfortunate that the Kendricks felt compelled to make an old blind African American man a former drug addict, so that the only criminal elements in the film were ascribed to black characters. But I suppose it’s good that the Kendricks included African Americans as major characters at all, rather than just slipping them in as token extras. The principal is black, and they get points for having the blind man, Thomas (Cameron Arnett), be the one to help John see that he wasn’t focusing enough on Christ.

Young viewers might be able to identify with Hannah, middle-age viewers with John and his wife, and older viewers with Thomas. All three generations at different stages of life wrestle with problems that are solved by accepting Jesus, and while it happens most movingly with Hannah it’s the Yoda-like wisdom of Thomas and his relationship with Hannah, not John’s, that emerges as the subplot that generates the most interest and gets the Christian message across in a more subtle and palatable way. If the Kendricks figure out how to follow Thomas’s lead in future films, they might be able to take the next leap and create faith-based films that don’t whack people over the head with a Bible or hymnal.


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Fishes'nLoavescoverGrade: C
Entire family: Yes
2016, 103 min., Color
Rated PG for brief suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: DVD, Digital
Amazon link

Fishes ‘n loaves aside, I’m a sucker for fish-out-of-water stories, and the promotional description for this 2016 “comedy” made it sound promising:

“When his parish closes, a big-hearted California preacher is dispatched to a church in tiny Eufala, Arizona (pop. 4,521), a land of rodeos, square dances, love-struck-goats, and amateur musicals. Can Pastor Randy (Patrick Muldoon) and his loved ones keep their sanity long enough to inspire a community that’s gone astray?”

So I was primed and ready to experience Fishes ‘n Loaves: Heaven Sent, “a comedy of biblical proportions,” as the tagline described it. My wife thought it sounded cute, and my daughter was along for the ride.

But it wasn’t long before we started giving each other sidelong glances.

Funny how you don’t give casting a second thought until it seems wrong. And from the minute that Patrick Muldoon stood in front of a sparsely populated but really impressive church and delivered his sermon, I wasn’t believing him as a minister. He had the vibe of a business executive leading a team-building exercise, not someone who felt it his calling to tend to God’s flock. Dina Meyer also seemed far from what we think of when we think of preacher’s wives—a little too glam, a little too worldly, maybe. Their children were fine, though we all laughed that the family’s refrigerator is covered with alphabet magnets and the kids are in their teens. But details like that make a difference, and we had a hard time swallowing the “reality” that Fishes ‘n Loaves was serving. Stiff lines of dialogue didn’t help, nor did situational lines that seemed totally unbelievable. I mean, what teenage guy, upon meeting a teenage girl with his family standing right there next to him, would gush, “Gee, you’re pretty”?

Fishes'nLoavesscreen1So here’s where we’re at: Pastor Randy is told that they’re closing his parish—though the building is huge and in pristine condition, so there’s obviously money—and they want him to go to a tiny town in Arizona. His wife, meanwhile, wants him to work for her brother at his pizza place (something else I’m not buying, given the casting) and give up this preaching stuff. Really? One minute Pastor Randy is trying to decide how to tell his family they’re moving, and the next minute he’s mopping the floor of the pizza joint and looking like a mope. I just wasn’t believing his crisis of faith or the way they dealt with decisions in their relationship—at least the way that it was presented here. Did he really need a heavy-handed push from a homeless man named (wait for it) DeAngelis (Michael Emery), who basically explains to him the cliché that when God closes one door another one opens, or that God wants him to go to Arizona? No, but he (and we) get it anyway, and it adds an unnecessary layer of hokiness that even the normally ebullient Bruce Davison, as Pastor Ezekiel, can’t penetrate once the film relocates to its primarily rural setting.

But really, it all keeps coming back to casting. Even in Eufala, the assortment of characters lacks the charm and presence to make this city fish feel enough out of water to where it flops and squirms the way it needs to in order to make for successful comedy. Same with the hackneyed “talent auditions” that pop up in way too many movies.

Bottom line: for a comedy,  Fishes ‘n Loaves: Heaven Sent just isn’t that funny. What’s more, it falls short of being inspirational because the film’s trajectory is an overly simplistic line from Point A to Point B. (“You’ve taught us city folk the true meaning of how to love one another”). Even a similarly uncomplicated film like Miracles from Heaven does a better job of inspiring because of nuance, better writing, and (here’s that word again) casting.

Language: Squeaky clean
Sex: Same here
Violence: n/a
Adult situations: Some mild suggestive material
Takeaway: The only fish out of water in this film are the actors