I Can Only Imagine Review

From an abusive childhood to celebrity stardom, I Can Only Imagine covers the heartwarming bittersweet story of Bart Millard and the top ranked Christian single of all time.

With a history of faith-based films in recent years being cliche and predictable with two dimensional characters, I was skeptical going to my viewing of Andrew and Jon Erwin’s new film. I held similar concern about another feature length film telling the story of single song. Yet as it turns out, that is just what the song, which focuses pondering of the afterlife and meeting God, needed.

The film has the predictable happy ending of a modern religious film, but is to be expected, being about a factual hit song, no less, so it does not detract very much from its enjoyability. Neither is the film a propaganda like so many others in the faith-based subgenre, where characters are one, at most two, dimensional and unbelievable. A pleasant change from a tired run of flicks, this film is a breath of fresh air.

After a day of mowing lawns and 80s nostalgia, J. Michael Bradley’s Bart Millard comes home to an abusive father (Dennis Quaid) harassing he and his mom (Tanya Clarke) alike. On what appears to be the following morning, Bart’s mom takes him to a camp, a camp at which Bart will find escape the environment of his home, find his faith, make his first friends, and meet the love of his life.

When the weekend comes, Bart eagerly returns home to see his mother, but when she is nowhere to be found, his spirits sink. He is met only by his father, and learns the cruel truth that his mother has moved out, for which Bart initially blames himself. Having had enough of his father’s abuse and in a rage at him being the true cause behind his mother’s departure, Bart attacks Arthur, only to trigger the man into badly beating his son.

This abuse from Bart’s father would continue well into his teens, the boy’s only true escape coming after an incident which forced him to quite the football team and landed him the lead role of the school’s musical production, which slowly began the snowball of Bart learning to believe in himself. Yet when his father refuses to attend church and hear him sing, followed by striking him across the head with a plate, Bart reverts back to his old ways of not believing in himself, leading to a spiral of regrettable decisions.

Almost as soon as he graduates, Bart hits the road until he finds himself as lead singer of a band. After two years of touring with what became MercyMe, the group performs for contractors, but is denied at the brightest moment. Bart spirals into a mess of shame and flashbacks to his abusive childhood, and help only arrives when Brickell (Trace Adkins), who helped to the band to where they were, makes an important suggestion that lights a spark within the young singer. Suddenly full of energy, Bart tells the band they are still together and quickly departs for his father.

Bart’s journey will become one of redemption and self growth, as he learns one of the most powerful tools in life – forgiveness. The series of events which follows will lead to the ultimate creation of the hit song after which the film is named to be written in only ten minutes, but what was a lifetime in the making.

After its first live performance, the song quickly shoots to fame, becoming the number one Christian song of all time. News broadcasts are shown and radio broadcasts heard, following a cut to black. As is standard with many biopics, factoids and images of the characters – and in this case, song – are shown revealing what happened in the time following where the film left off. A happy and satisfying ending, if somewhat expected.

Of course, as it is a film, the writers had to take some created license. The stories of Bart, his MercyMe, and the song itself are riddled with inaccuracies. In actuality, Bart’s mother left when he was only three, and his father only became abusive after suffering a head injury. Bart also had an older brother, who was entirely excluded from the film without even the slightest of references. One of the largest and perhaps over glorifying inaccuracies was the rate at which “I Can Only Imagine” rose to fame – the song sat for a number of months before finally being played before a large audience, whereas in the film made it out to be only a number of days or weeks. There are a few of other areas in which the writers changed things up, though these inaccuracies, as well as the others, can be forgiven to a degree for the sake of dramatising the film, which worked to success.

The only other considerable issue with the film was the distinction of time. Between the time Bart graduated high school and first met Brickell, two years had passed, yet the only thing to make this clear was one small line. Bart and Shannon both looked the same in high school they did two years later, which may be attributable to error on the behalf of the casting director. Even worse is that ten years passed between Bart’s graduation from high school and the performance of the song in 2001, and the characters still looked the same as they did a decade prior. Furthermore, there are no clues alluding to how much time passed between Bart’s return home to confront his father and the writing of the song near the end, leaving only those knowledge of the song’s history to know the year and passage of time. This failure to acknowledge the passing of time is a bit confusing and detracts, if minutely, from the quality of the film.

I Can Only Imagine has been a hit success in Hollywood, with good reviews from critics and a 94 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It has its flaws, and may cater primarily to a specific audience, but the places in which it succeeds and its message of forgiveness are something tangible by all audiences. The film is currently playing in theaters.