Four guys asking questions about faith and Jesus is something of a formula for Riot Studios–they did it first with their film One Nation Under God and again with Beware of Christians. But those were both documentaries, films in which the filmmakers were also in front of the camera as they traveled the world wondering what real faith looks like. In Riot’s newest feature film, Believe Me (out September 26th), the story is front and center and the filmmakers stay behind the camera to make room for stars like Parks and Rec‘s Nick Offerman, Glee‘s Max Adler, and Christian rapper Lecrae.
(Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why would we talk about any other movie when 22 Jump Street is coming out on Friday? Are you DYING of excitement? Me, too. In fact, I am leaving my own birthday party early on Friday night so that I can make it to the 9:40 showing. But, having just turned 29, I now understand that maturity occasionally demands you focus on things other than what is currently occupying all your emotional energy. Anyhow. I digress.)
Faith-based films are, more often than not, overburdened with a message to the point of being didactic, not to mention boring. Who wants to pay to see a film that is really just a sermon in disguise–and a bad sermon at that? Movies like God’s Not Dead and Fireproof and Grace Unplugged never rise above the category of message movies. But this looks promising. The basic premise of Believe Me has nothing to do with academic persecution, preventing gay marriage, or solving the question of whether heaven is for real. Instead, it focuses on four college students who, seeing an opportunity to pay their tuition and make some extra money, create a fake charity and capitalize on Christian fundraising techniques to line their pockets. Take a look at the trailer.
Were it just a Saved!-style parody, this would be a film worth seeing. But the fact that it is made by Christian filmmakers makes it all the more intriguing, because what we usually see from Christian filmmakers is so very different from what Believe Me is offering. An article at the Christian Post gave this statement from the team behind Riot Studios:
“We’re proud of what we’ve written in ‘Believe Me. We’re excited to hold up the mirror, not point the finger, at our religious culture in hopes of making you laugh a lot and think a lot about how Christians are perceived by others.”
Holding up a mirror to a particular culture is exactly the kind of thing that film does beautifully. It’s hard to imagine a better medium for this kind of story, and the filmmakers clearly know the world they’re entering into. “Christians want the emotional high of giving,” one of the scheming students says in the trailer. “We’re just going to supply that demand in exchange for a small fee.” Or, a bit later, by way of explanation of worship: “There are four essential hand-raising techniques.”
It’s all true, and if this doesn’t make evangelicals uncomfortable with recognition, I don’t know what will. The film is both parody and, in Riot Studios fashion, one big question: Why are we so quick to believe anyone with a platform?
And this is why I think (and hope) Believe Me might be the first good Christian film, or at least the best since Chariots of Fire. Good filmmaking will always get at the truth, and one resounding truth borne out by plenty of headlines is that the church has fallen prey to its fair share of religious scandals. These scandals almost always come from within, from people who say they believe but live differently. And at some level, that’s all of us. And that’s why this film, holding up a mirror instead of pointing a finger, might be just the bitter pill the church needs.