REVIEW: Jesus Revolution (2023, dirs. Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 115 mins

UK Distributor: KOVA International

WHO’S IN JESUS REVOLUTION?

Joel Courtney, Jonathan Roumie, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Anna Grace Barlow, Kelsey Grammer, Nic Bishop, Nicholas Cirillo, Ally Ioannides, Julia Campbell, Mina Sundwall, DeVon Franklin, Charlie Morgan Patton, Jolie Jenkins, Shaun Weiss, Jackson Robert Scott

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Jon Erwin (director, writer, producer), Brent McCorkle (director, composer), Jon Gunn (writer), Kevin Downes, Andrew Erwin, Jerilyn Esquibel, Daryl Lefever and Joshua Walsh (producers), Akis Konstantakopoulos (cinematographer), John Pucket (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In the early 1970s, a Christian counterculture movement inspires a number of people…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON JESUS REVOLUTION?

The market for faith-based films in the UK is nowhere near as big as the one in America, so it’s not that surprising that a lot of them, even the ones that occasionally strike gold at the box office, often get a much more limited theatrical run over here (although, given how some of them lean into some rather hateful rhetoric with the Bible as their excuse, it’s probably a good thing that they aren’t as big over here). Sometimes, though, UK audiences will get lucky and get a movie like Jesus Revolution showing on a handful of screens, and it’s understandable why: aside from having a few more recognisable actors than these movies tend to offer, the film preaches a good enough message about acceptance and tolerance, no matter where you come from or even what faith you may be.

Granted, that doesn’t automatically make Jesus Revolution a flawless movie, but in comparison to the far more questionable Christian films out there, this one might as well be sent from the heavens.

Set in the late 1960s, the film largely takes place in California with the hippie movement well underway, and with many young people – among them future evangelist Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney)  – searching for the path to enlightenment, which largely involves being strung out on a lot of drugs. Meanwhile, Baptist pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) and his conservative congregation are uncertain what to make of the cultural takeover, until he meets Christian hippie Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) who wants to spread the word of God to young people, and the two soon pair up to offer them a spiritual way forward. Eventually, Greg joins the congregation, which quickly becomes a massive countercultural movement that unites young people with their faith.

The film takes numerous steps that are in line with other faith-based films, from the pause-for-laughter sitcom humour to monologues heavy with Christian doctrine set to an inspirational musical score, but Jesus Revolution takes these steps in much more assured and less forced manner. Co-director Jon Erwin previously found this effective balance with previous religious films like I Can Only Imagine and Woodlawn, and here both he and co-director Brent McCorkle (who also provides the aforementioned score) manage to tell this story with enough heart and goodwill to avoid falling into a lot of the same traps that others have fallen into. There is, for the most part, an overall acceptance of people from all walks of life who aren’t necessarily Christian, and those who remain intolerant of such people – even those who are already Christian – are treated like the villains, instead of heroic figures as they often can be depicted in some of these movies. It’s a much more levelled film, one that refuses to draw itself into strawman debates or paint anyone who isn’t religious as a heartless monster, and just sets out to deliver its messages of goodness and acceptance without much judgement.

The acting is also a lot better here than in a large amount of other faith-based movies, but that’s to be expected when you have an esteemed acting legend like Kelsey Grammer among the cast. He delivers an excellent performance here, as he really brings a heartfelt spirit to the role that’s warm and, when it needs to be, silently threatening in that classic Kelsey Grammer style (he was, after all, the source of some of my childhood nightmares whenever he’d show up on The Simpsons as Sideshow Bob). Most of the rest of the cast do well here too, including Joel Courtney whose turn as the young Greg Laurie is certainly passionate in many areas, and Jonathan Roumie whose eccentric portrayal of Lonnie Frisbee is certainly entertaining, often acting as if Owen Wilson was playing Jesus in a movie  (funnily enough, the actor also portrays the Messiah himself on the hit TV show The Chosen, which probably explains why his arguably Christ-like portrayal extends to his uncanny physical resemblance). That isn’t to say that every actor hits their mark, with some walking an awkward line between stoner in a Seth Rogen comedy and eerily wide-eyed cultist, but again I’ve seen performances in these kinds of movies be so much worse, so there’s nothing to really complain about with the acting here.

However, there’s just as much to criticize as there is to praise, and unfortunately Jesus Revolution, like a lot of other similar movies in the Christian camp, tends to preach way too hard and often in manners that make it seem a little disingenuous. You expect a movie like this to feel heavy-handed, and that certainly is the case here too, with extra emphasis on overly sentimental speeches about God’s love and how Jesus’s actions should be practised in everyday life, and it can get exhausting after a while. With how consistently it hammers in all these otherwise good messages, one starts to think that the filmmakers might be overcompensating ever so slightly, which is when some of the cracks start to form and show the hidden morals behind the positive ones it’s trying to put forward. Case in point, one of the film’s main characters in real life turned out to be a closeted gay man whose sexuality caused him to be booted from the denominations he helped found, and later died of AIDS in the early 90s; none of that is depicted in this film, supposedly to not upset the far-right Christian audience members who still sadly see homosexuality as a sin, so that makes Jesus Revolution and its supposed promotion of acceptance and tolerance seem a bit more artificial.

There are also too many characters that the film chooses to focus on, with some being cast aside for long periods to where you even forget that they were in the movie, despite having a considerably large presence earlier on, and others that seem like they’re going to be important later on but are almost never brough back. Had it just been primarily about Chuck Smith and Lonnie Frisbee’s partnership, then maybe Jesus Revolution wouldn’t feel like too big a juggling act of plots and characters.

That aside, it’s hard to fully hate on this movie, as its heart is largely in the right place and it does have some good messages to promote – it really just needed one last draft to clear up some of its otherwise well-intentioned messiness.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Jesus Revolution is a faith-based drama that largely has its heart in the right place, and features better acting and morals than most other Christian films out there, but an overabundance of characters and heavy-handed preachiness, and the occasional bit of hypocrisy with its themes of acceptance and tolerance, leave it somewhat uneven.

Jesus Revolution is showing in cinemas from Friday 23rd June 2023

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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