The Christian phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” implies that it’s possible to separate the person from their actions, and that, as individuals, those who follow the word of the Bible are capable of transcending their discomfort or disdain for anyone who lives a life in conflict with their beliefs. From the perspective of director and co-writer Kevin O’Brien’s film At the End of the Day, this is not how the church functions in the real world. The church and its devout faithful don’t look at the core of the person, but at how they present themselves outwardly. Therein lies the contradiction: how can one claim to love someone without condition, yet proclaim that the thing which identifies them as a sinner immediately makes that person a pariah? It’s a complicated question which O’Brien’s dramedy attempts to answer by exploring the notion of humanity and the way blind faith contorts perspective, preventing the message of love from being shared openly and honestly.
Dave Hopper (Stephen Shane Martin) suffers a crisis of faith when, first, his wife Samantha leaves him for a woman and then, he loses counseling practice. With nowhere else to turn, he returns to his hometown to live with his aunt Patty (Susan Mulholland) and takes a part-time teaching gig working for his old professor, now dean, at Lakeshore Christian College. As Dave settles in to his new life back home, Dean Woodward (Tom Nowicki) mentions to Dave that he’d like to expand the school into a new property with Dave overseeing it – there’s just one hitch: the property’s been promised to a gay support group. With a chip firmly on his shoulder, Dave offers to go to one of the support group’s meetings to see if he can find out how close the group is to affording the back taxes on the property which would enable them to own the property outright. What should’ve been one meeting turns into several as Dave slowly begins to realize that the stereotypes he’d been fed his entire life – those of a sick, debaucherous, and predatory community – crumble away, leaving confusion and a new perspective on faith and God’s love.
The single thing that makes At the End of the Day work is its authentic desire to open hearts. This isn’t about moving forward a progressive agenda nor is it about shouting down detractors. Rather, End of the Day tries to remind any potential audience that to love unconditionally means exactly that. In this regard, O’Brien made the wise choice of hiring not only those whom he perceived as the best actors for the roles, but the ones most appropriate and who would carry his message forward. Where other directors may hire a gay man (Matt Bomer in Anything) or a cis woman (Scarlett Johansson almost in Rub and Tug) for a transgender role, O’Brien explicitly cast actress Emily Davis, a transgender woman, to portray Erika, one of the central members of the support group. Placing Davis in a central, supporting role within the core group is a powerful inclusive statement and wholly supports the underpinning theme of the film. Though the character of Erika isn’t a key element to the story, she’s not invisible either, and Davis infuses her with a quiet strength. She also gets some of the better one-off jokes in the film. Additionally, a mix of gay and straight actors make up the rest of the cast. O’Brien’s choice is essential to maintaining authenticity within the film, particularly because the central character, portrayed by Martin, is virtually the same cis white male character audiences have seen before. His bland characterization assists in making him a cipher for the audience to project themselves upon. Every one he meets almost instantly tells him what they think he is, rather than asking. For the most part, Dave goes along with that. Whether that’s a weakness of character or just a desire to reduce confrontation is unclear. That, and a victim-complex due to his faith are what get him into trouble in the film. Dave blames the LGBTQ+ community for losing his wife and job, or at least that’s what he initially thinks because of his beliefs, and it’s this view which drives him to initially sabotage the efforts of the support group to raise the funds they need. Given Dave’s background, none of this seems out of the ordinary. What does is the lengths he goes to justify his actions. Again, at first, this may seem irrational, but it may also seem incredibly familiar.
The notion of Dave as a cipher goes further than just as a means for the audience to place themselves within the story. O’Brien frequently stages scenes to make them feel smaller and more private, and sets them often from Dave’s perspective or over his shoulder. During the first meeting Dave attends, as the group gathers, the wide shots take place behind Dave so that we see the whole group and not his face. Later, when he’s experiencing some one-on-one time with group leader Alyssa (Danielle Sagona), she tells Dave about what happened to the previous leader, how he was beaten, strangled by a rainbow flag, and left to die. These words alone paint a terrible image, but O’Brien amplifies it by blacking out everything but the actors, as though the light’s been sucked out of the room. We observe Dave in profile, clearly in rapt attention, trying to process Alyssa’s pain and the horror she’s been touched by. The audience can plainly see, via Martin’s performance, the conflict within Dave as he focuses on the human loss via his faith. Later, when the group attends a Zebra House to learn how shelters work, several guests offer their stories to the group. As each one faces the camera, offering their testimony to the audience, the camera cuts back and forth to Dave with the others just slightly out of focus. These stories matter to the support group, but we the audience, like Dave, are the intended recipients of the heart-breaking tales. One moment after another, O’Brien utilizes staging to center the audience along with Dave, so that his experience is also ours.
These aforementioned moments are incredibly powerful and frequently resonate. However, there’re two aspects of the approach to End of the Day which cannot be ignored no matter how hard the audience tries: non-stop lecturing and Dave. Because End of the Day is centered on a man of faith who’s placed in a situation where that very faith is questioned, there’s going to be a great deal of talking. The character is a counselor-turned-teacher, so he’s going to do a lot of talking. Trick is, most every scene is either him giving a lecture or receiving one. It may begin with a student’s question to him or a question from Dave to anyone else, but it almost always ends the same: a long explanation which is pointedly discussing the central theme of the film. Granted, End of the Day wears its motives out front for all to see, but there’s something to be said for a bit of subtlety. This, of course, could be forgiven if Dave himself weren’t such an absolute bastard. In the history of cinema, there are plenty of stories in which protagonists who lie at first and then get found out are deservedly welcomed back by the end of the story. Except Dave deserves no such absolution. Sure, the character undergoes an extreme change of perspective, as well as gains a new understanding of the core of his faith, but that doesn’t mean he deserves almost total forgiveness for his behavior. By the final act, Dave’s breach of trust grows to colossal heights, ensuring the ghastly philosophical fall the narrative requires, yet, rather than meditating on this and offering a chance for Dave to compensate in a reasonable way, the narrative instead chooses to pile lecture upon lecture to Dave. So not only is his final form of change and growth a little unearned, but he’s forgiven for it far too easily. It’s a narrative choice which supports the “choose love” aspect of End of the Day which the audience O’Brien wishes to target needs to see, one in which the misfits, the broken, the cast aside can find a film which states that you can be faithful and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s one which feels disingenuous against all the authenticity.
In spite of its faults, At the End of the Day wins over its audience due to having its heart in the right place. Though it may preach to Dave and, therefore, the audience, it’s a heavy-handed message of love. In this regard, At the End of the Day is undoubtedly the kind of film whose audience is immediately split: those who would see this film because they are already open to the message and those who will not because they are not. There’s an almost obvious similarity between End of the Day and the God’s Not Dead series in that each will undoubtedly bolster their bases, except, where God’s Not Dead is aimed at a specific audience of filmgoers who are looking to have their views supported in an otherwise secular selection of films, At the End of the Day isn’t actively trying to bolster the faithful, but to open eyes and change hearts. It wants to ask questions of its audience and challenge its audience to answer them, not in an angry, forceful way, but from a place of great care and deep love. More than anything, At the End of the Day wants its audience to pause, to reflect, and to ask, “if they were Dave, what would they do?” all while patiently waiting, with love in their hearts, for an affirmative answer.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, on VOD, and digital February 26th, 2019.
For more information on At the End of the Day, go to their official website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.