Believe Me

Believe Me
Director: Will Bakke
Screenplay: Michael B. Allen and Will Bakke
Stars: Alex Russell (Sam), Zachary Knighton (Gabriel), Johanna Braddy (Callie), Miles Fisher (Pierce), Sinqua Walls (Tyler), Max Adler (Baker), Nick Offerman (Sean), Christopher McDonald (Ken), Lecrae Moore (Dr. Darnall Malmquist)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2014
Country: U.S.Believe Me
Believe MeIn Will Bakke’s Believe Me, Alex Russell (Chronicle) plays Sam, a college senior one semester away from graduation when he discovers that his scholarships have run out and he owes more than $9,000—which he doesn’t have. So what’s a struggling college student with law school aspirations to do but set up a fake Christian charity that is supposedly raising money to dig wells in Africa—the amusingly named “Get Wells Soon Project”—and pocket the dough contributed by well-meaning young evangelicals? And what if the ruse, which he concocts with three of his fraternity brothers, Pierce (Miles Fisher), Tyler (Sinqua Walls), and Baker (Max Adler), is so convincing that the leader of an evangelical summer tour (Christopher McDonald) recruits them to be keynote speakers, thus creating the opportunity to skim even more donations?

Such is Believe Me’s intriguing premise, which allows Bakke and co-screenwriter Michael B. Allen to tackle a number of issues simultaneously, some of which are played for laughs, some of which are taken more seriously. Bakke and Allen, who previously collaborated as college students on a pair of self-searching documentaries (2009’s One Nation Under God and 2011’s Beware of Christians), have fun exploring the amusing intricacies of youth-oriented evangelical Christian culture (which they know well) while also recognizing how odd it looks to outsiders. One of the film’s most amusing sequences finds Sam, Pierce, Tyler, and Baker, none of whom are religious, teaching each other about how to look and act “Christian,” which involves everything from different arm gestures during worship (the biggest being the “Shawshank,” which involves both arms up and hands outstretched), to crucial words needed during any prayer (“just” is a must), to how religious youth manage to cuss without actually cussing.

The balancing act Bakke and Allen manage in poking fun at evangelical culture, especially as embodied in young people who have found creative ways to make Christianity “hip,” while not blatantly mocking organized religion and, more importantly, people’s faith, is impressive, as is their ability to convey a strong moral message without getting overtly preachy or didactic, which is the typical downfall of so many faith-based films (not that Bakke would describe Believe Me as one of those). The film is shot through with all kinds of amusing visual and rhetorical gags, one of the best being a worship song consisting entirely of the word “Jesus” (on the big screen behind the stage we see “Jesus” listed half a dozen times followed by “Repeat x16”).

The story has a fairly conventional arc, with Sam and his friends initially diving greedily into their ruse without fully considering the ramifications of their exploitation, although Bakke and Allen have a few tricks up their sleeves in the third act, as they allow certain plot strands to resolve with a fair amount of pleasant predictability while leaving others ambiguous. As the protagonist, Sam goes through the most obvious change of heart, although it is not shared by all of his friends, particularly Pierce, a rich boy to begin with who only has dollar signs on the mind. Tyler has the biggest crisis of confidence, especially after he witnesses the immense power Sam begins to wield over young people who think he’s the real deal. At that point, he sees that it’s not just about stealing money, but about genuinely affecting the course of people’s lives.

The film also manages to build in a love triangle of sorts, with Sam becoming more and more attracted to Callie (Johanna Braddy), the tour’s sweet-natured manager, who is already involved with Gabriel (Zachary Knighton), the tour’s preening, hipster worship leader. Associating different characters and their flaws with different elements of Christian culture allows the film to satirize organized religion without condemning the whole enterprise. In fact, if anything, Believe Me is quite generous in conveying the heart and soul of people trying to make a positive impact without losing sight of how the elaborate staging of modern evangelical culture can becomes its own hindrance.

Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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