Early in I Still Believe, a young man is given a guitar by his family. He is moved and delighted by the gift, and climbs aboard a Greyhound bus, carrying only the instrument and a threadbare duffel bag. The bus leaves Lafayette, Indiana, and heads for a small bible college in sunny California, and as it passes through the plains, we see the young man through the window, smiling beatifically, practically glowing from within as he plays his heart out on the guitar. His joy is apparent—but so is the fact that he’s on a cross-country bus, and not the only passenger. Watching I Still Believe is a bit like being on that bus, a few rows back. It doesn’t feel good to be irritated by something so earnest, but it is not your guitar, and not your joy, and the bus ride is very, very long.
Playing the guitar for yourself and playing for others are two different things. The same is true of telling a true story and making a movie from one. Like I Can Only Imagine, the previous film from directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, the faith-based biopic I Still Believe springs forth from music and the real-world events that inspired that music. In I Can Only Imagine, the Erwins traced the origins of the massive Christian single of the same name by MercyMe. Here, they’re telling the story behind several of singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp’s hits—including, yes, “I Still Believe.” This true story is without a doubt painful, and it’s obvious why the film’s producers felt it might make for powerful drama. But it’s not enough to merely say, “Here is a very sad thing that happened to someone—are you not inspired?!” You need characters with wants, needs, and flaws. If all you want is to inspire, you’re better off creating a line of faith-based hang-in-there cat posters—or, perhaps, three-minute evangelical pop songs.
It seems as though Jeremy (KJ Apa, who plays Archie on Riverdale) has a calling to inspire. Armed only with that guitar and his own gumption, he arrives at his new college, heads to a concert by fellow student and rising Christian music star Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons), and promptly bluffs his way backstage to ask how to “make it” in the faith-based biz. Something about Jeremy must prove endearing, because he’s given some earnest advice and a chance to watch from the wings, and it’s there that he spots Melissa (Britt Robertson), raising her hands toward the heavens as tears stream down her face. It turns out she’s with the band, so to speak, and so the film’s first act centers on a love triangle involving Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean-Luc—sexless and bland, yes, but still somehow reasonably engaging. But love triangles aren’t inspiring. Terminal illnesses, on the other hand…
Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn’s screenplay does accurately reflect how a devastating diagnosis can come out of nowhere, making all prior concerns about who’s dating who look silly and meaningless. It’s when Melissa gets sick that the film really begins, which is a shame, because it’s also when it stops caring about the characters and starts focusing almost exclusively on the message. If I Still Believe retains any of its emotional appeal, it’s entirely thanks to the leads, who occasionally manage to make this guided tour of a young couple’s suffering feel personal and ever-so-slightly complex. Robertson has the harder job, tasked with ailing beautifully to inspire others. She manages to make the most out of her few minutes of anger and frustration. Apa’s duty is less onerous, but he fares well, too—and for what it’s worth, sings beautifully.
That the story has roots in truth does not excuse it from running headlong into every young-love-meets-death trope in the books. Nor does it help that the Erwins seem to lose all interest in artful composition as soon as illness enters the picture. (Cancer is serious business—who has time for creativity when grappling with it?) In attempting to tell the story of this young woman’s death—not her life, no time for that either—I Still Believe cheapens it. Melissa is not a person, merely a plot device, the angelic origin story of an artist whose many successes are trumpeted in an insufferable closing crawl. Her suffering, the film tells us in endless platitudes, has meaning; it was God’s plan that she should inspire others. If there is an afterlife, she should demand a remake.