Are Faith-Centered Movies Having a Renaissance in 2017?
This year, faith-based films entertain, provoke and empathize as never before — including new release All Saints from Sony Pictures.
This year, critics have been surprised by a host of faith-centric movies: Martin Scorsese’s Silence, biopic The Case for Christ, indie comedy The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, and record-breaking documentary In Our Hands, to name a few.
Now in theaters, the new film All Saints engages big questions against the small backdrop of a dying Episcopal church in rural Tennessee.
All Saints reflects a six-year investment by Sony Pictures, also behind the summer blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming. Sony’s Affirm Films label got its start a decade ago with Facing the Giants. Sony agreed to distribute the film, produced for only $100,000 by a local church.
As film-craft, the football drama wasn’t ground-breaking. By the end, the team is winning every game, a couple’s struggle with infertility miraculously ends, and the coach even gets a shiny new red pickup truck.
Still, Christian audiences responded, and Facing the Giants earned $10 million at the box office. Hollywood took the hint from this bona fide success. Studios have gradually invested more resources in faith films, and it’s starting to pay off.
The True Story of a Tennessee Church
Fronted by veteran actor John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Northern Exposure), All Saints boldly goes where the real narrative takes it — into despair, divorce, and timely immigration issues. The writer and director spent years uncovering the layers of this true story. They first discovered it through a USA Today headline in 2008: “Myanmar refugees reinvigorate Tennessee church.”
Episcopal minister Michael Spurlock (Corbett) has been assigned his first congregation. But, with the church struggling, he’s been directed to let developers check out the property. The premise rings true, as the U.S. Census reports that more than 3,000 churches close every year.
One Sunday, attendance doubles when a dozen refugees attend a worship service. They are a people known as the Karen, fleeing war and persecution in southeast Asia. Adding to the film’s authenticity, many refugees play themselves as extras.
Director Steve Gomer and his wife actually moved to Smyrna, Tennessee, determined to know these people and respect their experiences on-screen. It’s no wonder the actual All Saints Episcopal Church allowed them to film on-site.
“I’ve been attending church, going and helping in whatever way I can,” stated Gomer in an interview. “[We] help kids with their papers, volunteer, drive the Karen to doctor’s appointments, stuff like that. I feel like I really am part of that community.” His film captures details of place and culture, like what crops grow best in the Midwest and the difficulty of singing acapella.
Church Politics, Refugee Struggles
When the minister swings into action to help the refugees, his Bishop Thomas (Gregalan Williams of The West Wing) isn’t so sure. “God save us from first-time pastors,” he mutters early on. His dominant presence guides scenes that respectfully portray church politics behind the curtain.
Reverend Spurlock helps find the refugees temp jobs. Meanwhile, his wife Aimée (Cara Buono of Stranger Things) starts a choir to give their kids a place to belong. He butts heads with Forrest, a Vietnam veteran-turned-farmer played with Southern gusto by character actor Barry Corbin (Lonesome Dove).
When Spurlock suggests the refugees could earn a living by farming church land, his elder isn’t buying. “You’re nothing but a con man with a collar!” he yells.
Despite resistance, the church begins a farming operation — seen as a solution for both the failing church and refugees’ needs. Their de facto leader Ye Win (Nelson Lee of Law and Order) becomes Spurlock’s closest ally and a voice of conscience. He urges the minister to lay aside his ego and solicit help.
Scenes of cultivating a community farm are filmed with humor and appreciation for the land. It’s a painstaking, sweaty process. Every day, the iconic sound of an overworked truck horn calls the migrant workers to their second job at a chicken farm. Clearly their upward climb in a new homeland isn’t due to charity.
Evolving For the Better
Harvest time comes without the expected resolution. A series of events illustrates hopelessness on-screen in a way most faith films would never dare. Seeing an enigmatic verse like Matthew 5:45 (“He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike”) portrayed in all its turmoil makes this story all the more true.
In leaving some things unresolved, the journey of small-town Smyrna is a triumph of faith and community. The film asks hard questions: Was it God’s voice or mine that I heard? If he started us down a path, why is it so difficult? It’s also willing to let viewers keep asking them later.
With stellar production quality and storytelling integrity, All Saints signals how Christian films have evolved for the better. Buzz also surrounds upcoming faith-based releases, including Mully, The Star and Same Kind of Different as Me. Perhaps 2017 isn’t done yet revealing how stories of faith can impact the culture.