In desperate, confounding times such as the times we’re living in today, the most arduous of questions begs itself to be pondered: What happens when the message of faith and hope can’t reach today’s generation of tomorrow’s future? Directors Jon Erwin (The Jesus Music) and Brent McCorkle’s (Unconditional) film Jesus Revolution attempts to answer that question, adapting an interesting movement from the 1970s as its focal point. The film begins with two parallel storylines: one involving Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), a young military school student who is trying to find himself and his place in the world; the other dealing with the odd couple-like union of conservative Pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) and the eccentric, friendly hippie/street preacher Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie). As the paths of these three men converge and a movement is formed, they will soon create what TIME Magazine dubbed as “The Jesus Revolution.”
When dealing with a faith-based or faith-adjacent film, you run the risk of alienating a mass audience that isn’t exactly gung-ho about being preached to. Among other things, a great value Jesus Revolution has in its case to non-believers is its casting and the chemistry among its actors. Taking the reins of most of the film’s real-life story (and backstory), Joel Courtney (Super 8) has a relatable Emilie Hirsch-like charm to his performance. He straddles a good line between relatable charisma and raw emotion, ready to switch the dial if the scene calls for it. He also shares great chemistry with Anna Grace Barlow (Witch Hunt), who also nails great emotion as Greg’s love interest Cathe. The best pairing in this film, however, is the duet of Kelsey Grammer (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Jonathan Roumie (Night at the Museum: Kahmunrah Rises Again). As Lonnie assimilates to Chuck’s world (or rather Chuck assimilates to Lonnie’s world), he brings hippies from all over the land into the conservative, rather-quiet doors of Chuck’s church. Within these moments, there are many heartfelt and humorous scenes between these two vastly different men with a singular passion to spread the “Good News” of Jesus. Basically, picture William F. Buckley Jr. having to join forces with Willie Nelson and you’ll better understand the mismatched union we have here.
Another problem with so many faith-based films are that they’re either too self-important or too melodramatic. While Jesus Revolution can have its melodramatic moments (especially in its emotionally-overdone flashback of Greg’s troubled childhood with his lush mother, played by Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Father of the Bride)), it’s the story’s sincere heart that makes up for it. The first half of Jon Gunn (American Underdog) and Jon Erwin’s script makes a terrific choice in framing the story through a parallel lens of the real-life characters Greg and Lonnie. As we meet a young, wandering, and lost Greg, we are also acquainted with an adult, enlightened, and reformed Lonnie. The two characters are strong bookends to each other: Greg is the young man Lonnie once was, Lonnie is the grown man Greg could be. This lays the groundwork for terrific character development in the film’s second half. Pastor Chuck (through which Kelsey Grammer delivers a truly heartfelt performance) is also a dynamic character that begins with a stern but limiting message of saving the young generation. He holds firm to this belief even as he dismisses young hippies as sinners and shuns a TIME Magazine cover that dares to ask the question “Is God Dead?” (a foreshadowing wink to the backstory of the film’s title). But it’s through his rebellious daughter that he meets Lonnie and his whole perspective on hippies, preaching, and who’s welcomed in God’s house (hint: everyone) changes completely. There is a great moment where, at one point, within Chuck’s church there is a clear divide: hippies on one side of the church, conservative church folk on the other side. One is open and willing to learn, the other is reserved and willing to judge those on the other side. It paints a powerful picture on how it would be if LGBTQ+ groups were in conservative churches today and the solace there would be in a Pastor Chuck at the pulpit willing to bridge the gap.
Jesus Revolution shuts down any worries of being another self-important entry in the faith-based canon when it holds its feet to the fire, confronting the fact that its true story’s leaders weren’t without criticisms or flaws. Strong opposing themes such as “faith healing vs faith theatrics” and “humility vs hubris” take center stage in the film’s second half and it brings a level of flawed humanity that most faith-based films don’t usually approach. While there are definitely some applause-worthy moments towards the film’s climax, the third act unfortunately suffers from an influx of back-to-back happy endings. Instead of centering on just one happy moment, the film pounds blessings upon blessings onto its characters to the point where it feels as if the audience is watching four alternate endings back-to-back. In spite of this, Jesus Revolution is a film with a positive message that doesn’t come off as pandering to its intended audience nor reeks of self-importance. The film practices what it preaches by introducing an accessible message to anyone that is willing to listen. Come as you are. The Revolution accepts you.
In select theaters February 22nd, 2023.
In theaters wide February 24th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Lionsgate Jesus Revolution website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.