I Still Believe is a romantic drama based on Christian music singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp’s early adult life and his marriage to Melissa Lynn Henning Camp. For many people, the information in that sentence alone is enough to determine whether they’re going to see this movie. But niche audiences deserve well-made films as much as anyone, so it’s unfortunate that I Still Believe isn’t a better film. It’s even worse that it might actually be a little dangerous.
The story starts with Jeremy (KJ Apa) leaving Indiana for a Christian college in California. He builds a friendship with a successful local musician named Jean-Luc, which creates an opening for Jeremy to pursue his own Christian music dreams. In one of his first forays onto a stage, he locks eyes with a woman in the crowd (Britt Robertson), learns her name is Melissa, and one charming “falling in love in college” montage later, they’re on their way to happily ever after. But then Melissa is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, and their carefree life of teasing each other while doing laundry, dancing in the library, and cuddling on the beach comes to a complete halt. Jeremy doubles down on the relationship and proposes, the two get engaged, and over the course of Melissa’s illness, they turn to God, their faith, and their religious community for strength and healing.
That kind of religious – and specifically Christian – focus could be expected from a movie made by brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin through their Christian film production company, Kingdom Story Company. The writers – Jon Erwin wrote the film along with Jon Gunn and Madeline Carrol – have also consistently focused on Christian films in their work. Jeremy’s a recognizable name in some communities, and his and Melissa’s story is one that many people find inspiring, heartbreaking as it is, so the “why” of this film basically adds up.
The “what” and “how” are a little murkier. The casting is mostly solid: Apa and Robertson in the lead roles are charming and have a strong chemistry. Gary Sinise, who plays Jeremy’s father, is probably the best part of the film. Shania Twain plays Jeremy’s mother for some reason – she doesn’t sing – but it’s a minor role, and she’s fine, so why not opt for a little stunt casting? But the pacing of the film is inconsistent and frustrating. About a third is spent on a basically inconsequential love triangle storyline involving Jean-Luc, and time skips ahead and then slows down in a way that makes it tricky to figure out how much time has passed. The movie is also incredibly sad in a way that makes it sort of unpleasant to watch if you have even a little doubt in the “God knows best and everything happens for a reason” mindset. Watching people be devastated and mired in grief for a significant chunk of the running time is kind of a grim experience.
But the way the film delegitimizes that feeling and the experience of it is the biggest problem with I Still Believe. This movie doesn’t just promote faith or Christianity, it insists on a specific type of unquestioning belief in God’s will. When Jeremy asks his audiences to pray for Melissa, the only satisfying result is the miraculous disappearance of her cancer. Melissa’s an inspiration because she trusts in God and his plan for her even if it’s death – which may be admirable, but I still desperately wanted someone to find that woman a therapist to talk through her diagnoses. Jeremy’s doubts and anger come across as moments of weakness, not moments of humanity, but as many who’ve studied Christianity know, Jesus himself had doubts on multiple occasions.
Maybe there’s something aspirational about depending on miracles or total acceptance of God’s plan, but I think it’s dangerous to tie those qualities so directly to being “good,” even for Christians. It doesn’t leave space for people who are struggling or frustrated with their lives or circumstances to be anything but “bad.” It doesn’t put any value on the experience and imperfections that come with being human, and as someone who has been religious my entire life, I see a story that sells being human as a shortcoming as more toxic than motivating.
I Still Believe will appeal to a lot of audiences, especially Christian ones, seeking inspiration. Maybe they’ll find it. Or maybe they’ll find what I did: a mediocre film that is largely propaganda dressed in inspirational clothing.