There’s been a strange trend of late where, one after the other, the films reviewed on EoM are trending toward satire. Additionally, each one has or will court some kind of controversy by premise alone and nothing else. A few trigger words and suddenly everyone’s up in arms. One mode of thinking is that everyone’s too sensitive these days, while another is that with more means of communication, we just have more evidence of wrong-doing. In the cases of recent reviews — The Hunt, Irresistible, and, now, Faith Ba$ed — it’s not about sensitivity, it’s about perceived abuse or degradation. For The Hunt, it was that Republicans were being stalked by Democrats. For Irresistible, it’s that liberal actors playing conservatives is automatically a caricature. For Faith Ba$ed, a film which has only screened at a few festivals before COVID-19 dashed other opportunities, it’s accused of being entirely sacrilegious and insulting to Christianity. Considering the number of beings who think there is an actual war on Christmas or that Christians are being persecuted in the United States, the premise of two men seeking to make a low budget faith-based science-fiction film is automatically going to draw ire. The amusing thing, there’s no reason to be angry with director Vincent Masciale (Fear, Inc.), writer/actor Luke Barnett (Fear, Inc.), or any of the cast involved, because Faith Ba$ed doesn’t take aim at faith. Not even slightly. This satirical comedy takes aim at those who take advantage of the faithful in a story that contains shades of the religious exploration of Dogma (1999) and the spunky underdog filmmaking of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008).
Childhood best friends Luke (Barnett) and Tanner (Tanner Thomason) live together, play together, and are, generally speaking, inseparable. Though Tanner primarily pays their bills from his job as a bartender, Luke does work as a pool cleaner and as a salesman for a specialty tea company owned by the ethically questionable Nicky Steele (Jason Alexander). When Luke learns that his father, Pastor Mike (Lance Reddick), may not be able to cover the mortgage on his church, Luke develops a crazy plan to both save the day and maybe win some parental respect: shoot a faith-based film. Unwilling to let something like lack of knowledge or technical expertise stop him, Luke convinces Tanner, their fellow bar mates, and anyone else who’ll help to develop the first space-based Christian film. With a group of well-intentioned amateurs, what could possibly go wrong?
Since most who hear about the premise are going to come gunning for narrative, let’s address this bit first: the script by Barnett does not, in any form, attack the faithful. Does it poke fun at modern churches, the music, and the commodifying of Christianity? Yes. Does it in any way mock the faith itself or those who practice it? Absolutely not. Though it’s fair to say that the script doesn’t pull punches, it’s also not seeking targets in the way you expect. For instance, as in one scene with Margaret Cho (Bright) and Chris Marquette (Barry), the pair portraying executives for studio Christflix, they explain that in order to reach the proper audience, a film has to feature an actor of a certain status (B-list or lower, ideally Republican), requires a test of faith, and that the film itself doesn’t to be bad, it just doesn’t have to be good. Even the jokes about the actors discussed as examples — Kevin Sorbo (God’s Not Dead), Dean Cain (John Light), and Kirk Cameron (Saving Christmas) — are not delivered as barbs on their performances or on the film’s themselves. They are statements regarding a certain commonality the performers share and the types of films they act in. Could all of this be construed as a slight against faith-based films? Sure. But only if you hear the words and not pay attention to the context. It’s being said, not by our protagonists Luke and Tanner, but by the representatives of a distributor whose business it is to sell films. Like any salesperson, they don’t have to take part in the product to sell it. In essence, the characters Cho and Marquette portray are false prophets, covering themselves in faith in order to make millions.
To be fair, the presentation of Pastor Mike’s church, Elevate Church, is not free of the stereotypes of modern services: life music, extravagant concessions, and mission trips to exotic areas. These are used mostly as fodder for the satire, shown as exaggerations on the real thing. Like the song most likely to get stuck in your head, “I Hung a Huge Cross,” sung by the church’s band the first time we see Luke and Tanner attend a service. Or a blink-and-you’ll-miss it reference as to why the mission trips frequent Guatemala. Outside of little things like this, the church itself and the faithful are treated delicately so that they are never the butt of any joke or insult. They are not presented as a solution, either, which helps Faith Ba$ed retain a pseudo-secular feel. This is where the comparison to Kevin Smith’s Dogma comes in because, like that film, Faith Ba$ed uses ideas of faith, specifically Christianity, as a means of personal examination. Luke doesn’t struggle with his adoptive father because he doesn’t attend church, it’s because of his lack of follow-through once starting on a project. Tanner doesn’t solve his problem of professional stunting by getting involved with the church, but by realizing that he was directionless. Much like Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) doesn’t suddenly become whole because she saved humanity from extinction, Luke and Tanner learn that faith is a source of strength which binds people together. Sounds an awful lot like the message of a certain Jewish Rabbi from the Middle East.
As for the film itself, the only real issue to be found is a strange documentary-style framing device that goes entirely unexplained. The use doesn’t diminish any aspect of the storytelling, in fact, it actually helps maintain energy and keeps the narrative flowing by enabling the characters to speak their minds directly to the audience when the opportunity to do so to the other characters either doesn’t make sense or is impossible in the moment. It’s just this thing that hangs out there with no explanation. There are a few moments like that where the film challenges the audience to go with it (who takes a scooter and one rod to clean the #1 client’s pool?), but those are nitpicks in the greater scheme of things. Considering where the story goes, it’s entirely possible that Luke and Tanner released the movie we watch as a documentary within their own world, but as the film makes no direct reference to this, that notion will have to live in my own head cannon.
Largely, though, Faith Bas$ed is, itself, a celebration of moviemaking. It’s not just the characters of Luke and Tanner who are so entirely powered by their own ignorance of moviemaking that they become an absolute joyful to watch, hence the vibe of Zack and Miri. It certainly helps that Barnett and Thomason have great on-screen chemistry, easily conveying the sense that they really have been best friends since childhood. The cast that they’ve put together for this is a veritable who’s who of faces you’ll recognize from projects big and small. Jason Alexander (Harley Quinn) looks to be having a ball as the slimey Steele, while Reddick (John Wick series) gets to use that steely monotone to devastating effect, so much so that you’d be forgiven for shuddering at the thought of him when you go axe throwing. Then there’s David Koechner, Carly Craig, Christoph Sanders, Danielle Nicolet, Marlon Young, David ury, and Richard Riehle, actors you’ll immediately recognize more for their supportive performances and, here, are each given a chance to shine. This may be Luke and Tanner’s story, but it’s one that brings a ragtag group together for a common goal, one that’s infused with an incredible positivity and the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be complete and meaningful to them. This is what makes so much of the humor work in Faith Ba$ed. It’s not trying to be funny, but presents situations that capture the natural ways in which life is funny. Sure, you get to see Lance Reddick in a green screen stocking, but you also get stuff like the aforementioned “I Hung a Huge Cross,” a truly ridiculous song that is wholly believable. So, before you pass judgement on Faith Ba$ed, give it a chance. It may just restore your faith in storytelling.
Currently seeking distribution amid festival shut-downs due to COVID-19.
Head to the official Faith Ba$ed website for more information.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.